Shifting the Burden: Online Violence Against Women

By Evelyn Lirri |

Across Africa, the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) by women and girls remains low. Yet amidst the low access to digital tools, women, particularly those in public and political spaces, such as human rights defenders (HRDs), bloggers, and journalists, continue to be the primary target of various forms of online violence such as cyberstalking, sexual harassment, trolling, body shaming and blackmail.

 According to a 2021 global survey by UNESCO, nearly three-quarters of female journalists have experienced online harassment in the course of their work, forcing many to self-censor. Furthermore, a 2020 report by UN Women found that women in politics and the media were more likely to be victims of technology-based violence as a consequence of their work and public profiles.

Over the years, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has documented and pursued interventions aimed at addressing the significant obstacles hindering an increase in women’s participation not only in online spaces but also in the political sphere. A concerning and recurring trend is that, oftentimes, responses to violence against women have prioritised an individual’s responsibility for self-protection rather than systematic or policy actions. 

 At the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2023 (FIFAfrica23), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Pollicy, Africtivites, the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Internews and the Solidarity Centre shared lessons learned from their work implementing multi-stakeholder interventions to address online violence against women. During a panel discussion, it was noted that applying multi-stakeholder interventions that include governments, civil society, technology platforms and media was critical in promoting safe and meaningful participation of women in online spaces. Internews and WOUGNET highlighted the work they have been jointly engaged in through the FemTech project in various African countries, aimed at empowering women human rights defenders to safely participate in digital spaces while promoting equitable access to technology. Through trainings of women human rights defenders, CSOs, policy makers and law enforcers, the project is raining awareness on how women are often impacted by cyber crimes legislations. 

In Senegal, AfricTivistes, a network organisation made up of journalists, bloggers and HRDs, has spearheaded public advocacy campaigns on responsible use of the internet. The organisation has conducted gender-inclusive training and capacity-building workshops for journalists, bloggers, public officials and political leaders on how to respond to cyber violence. Aisha Dabo, a Programme Coordinator at AfricTivistes, noted that since 2017, over 700 people in 15 African countries have been reached with these trainings. The organisation also conducts media monitoring of online violence on social media platforms. 

Sarah Moulton, NDI’s Deputy Director for Democracy and Technology, highlighted the negative impact that online violence continues to have on women who are actively engaged in politics and political spaces. In Uganda, for instance, a joint report by Pollicy and NDI documented cases of gender-based online violence during the 2021 general elections and found that women and men politicians experienced online violence differently, with women candidates likely to be trolled and body shamed while men were more likely to experience hate speech. This echoed research by CIPESA which analysed the gender dynamics of politics in online spaces in Uganda, including campaigns for presidential, parliamentary, mayoral, and other local government seats during the same elections. The CIPESA research also explored the legal landscape and in similarity to Pollicy and NDI found that although Uganda has enacted a number of laws aimed at improving digital access and rights such as the Computer Misuse Act 2011, the Anti Pornography Act 2014, the Excise Duty (Amendment) Act 2018, most do not address the gender dynamics of the internet such as targeted online gender-based violence, affordability, and the lack of digital skills among women.  

Like Africvistes, NDI has engaged in a number of campaigns to document these various forms of violence and make recommendations to address the problem. In 2022, it released a  list of interventions that could be adopted globally by technology platforms, governments, civil society and the media to mitigate the impact of online violence against women in politics and hold perpetrators to account.  

“Often, the expectation is that the individual is responsible for addressing the issue or for advocating on behalf of themselves. It really needs to involve a lot of actors,” said Moulton. 

On its part, the Solidarity Centre has been spearheading a global campaign to end gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. With the advent of Covid-19, a growing number of women shifted online for employment opportunities, access to services and education, among others. It was highlighted that female platform workers, including influencers, content creators and women who run online retail businesses, continue to face various violations such as sexual harassment and cyberbullying. 

Panelists called on governments to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 190 on violence and harassment in the world of work. This global treaty recognises the impact of domestic violence in the workplace, and how women are often disproportionately affected.  Currently, the convention has been ratified by 32 countries globally, of which only eight are African.

Journalists attending FIFAfrica23 also shared their encounters with online violence and called for regular digital literacy skills to stay safe online. Alongside the need for enhanced digital literacy, participants also noted the lack of effective reporting mechanisms for cases. Ultimately, it was noted that efforts that shift the burden of blame from victims of online violence against women in Africa need to be more actively pursued, alongside more actionable, collaborative and systematic interventions by governments, law enforcement, and platforms.

Advancing Awareness of the UNESCO Internet Universality Assessments in Africa

By Juliet Nanfuka |

In 2015, the 38th General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) endorsed a new definition on the universality of the internet. It was based upon four principles, namely Rights, Openness, Accessibility to all and Multi-stakeholder participation, or the ROAM principles. 

The addition of cross-cutting indicators in 2018 resulted in the ROAM-X Indicator framework comprising 303 indicators that assess the extent to which national stakeholders, including governments, businesses and civil society, comply with the ROAM principles. It was recognised that these indicators were central to the growth and evolution of the internet, and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.  

Over the years, UNESCO has partnered with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) to increase awareness of the Internet Universality Indicators (IUI’s) and the ROAM-X framework. In 2015, at the CIPESA-convened Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica), the ROAM principles were featured in the opening discussion of the event, with then UNESCO regional advisor for Communication and Information, Jaco du Toit, explaining the practical use of the Internet Universality principles of human-rights, openness, accessibility and multi-stakeholder participation and their link to African development.

The  2018 edition of FIFAfrica again provided a collaborative platform for experts, policymakers, activists, and technologists to exchange ideas and strategies for advancing a more inclusive and accessible digital space. CIPESA also contributed to discussions at the 2018 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) where the link between internet shutdowns and the need for national assessments through the use of the ROAM-X framework was stressed.

At the October 2020 Africa IGF, CIPESA contributed to a discussion that served as a launch of the IGF Dynamic Coalition on Internet Universality Indicators (IUIs). The Dynamic Coalition is a shared space for advocating Internet Universality ROAM principles worldwide, sharing experiences and raising awareness of the value of the related indicators and good practice in applying them in more countries. Further discussions were held at the global IGF in November 2020. 

In March 2022, CIPESA hosted a regional dialogue on the Indicators, which highlighted lessons from countries where IUI assessments had been conducted, namely  Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Niger and Senegal. This effort aimed to garner best practices in conducting national assessments of media and internet ecosystems using the indicators.

Later that year, CIPESA convened a regional training webinar to raise awareness of the Internet Universality ROAM-X indicators and their potential to promote internet development to advance media freedom and digital rights in Africa. The UNESCO Information for All Programme (IFAP) and International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) jointly supported the training which targeted participants from Cameroon, Malawi, Namibia,  Somalia and Uganda. Outputs from the webinar went on to feed into discussions at the 2022 IGF which included sessions on the ROAM-X indicators and a session on the Internet Universality Indicators as part of the Dynamic Coalition.

At the 2023 edition of  FIFAfrica held in September in Tanzania, UNESCO hosted a session titled “Foster Internet Freedom in Africa through UNESCO’s ROAM-X Internet Universality Indicators Assessments”. The panel consisted of UNESCO experts, including John Okande, Programme Officer, Tatevik Grigoryan, Associate Programme Specialist; and Xiaojie Sun, Junior Professional Officer. Also on the panel were participants from earlier UNESCO/CIPESA collaborative efforts on ROAM-X, including Asrat M. Beyene from the Internet Society Ethiopia Chapter and Addis Ababa Science and Technology University; Grace Githaiga, Convenor of the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet); and Dr. Simon-Peter Kafui Aheto of the University of Ghana.

The various speakers showcased the main findings and recommendations from the IUI  assessments they conducted,  and impacts of ongoing and completed ROAM-X national assessments in Africa (see some assessments here). They also shared best practices and lessons learnt during the implementation process. Panelists also highlighted that the IUI is due for revision following the amount of data collected over the years and the evolving digital landscape globally.   Since its introduction, ROAM-X has been integrated into discussions at FIFAfrica and into CIPESA programming, both of which have served as collaborative platforms for experts and policymakers to advance inclusivity and accessibility in the digital space.

Effects of Disinformation on the Digital Civic Space Spotlighted at the African Commission

By CIPESA Writer |

The effects of disinformation on the digital civic space have been put in the spotlight at the 77th Ordinary session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights held in Arusha, Tanzania on October 16-18, 2023.

In a  panel session titled “Promoting rights-respecting government responses to disinformation in Sub-Saharan Africa,” speakers explored how disinformation affects online rights and freedoms including freedom of expression, access to information, freedom of assembly and association and participation especially in electoral democracy. Speakers at the session, which was part of the Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) Forum, were drawn from Global Partners Digital, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa, PROTEGE QV of Cameroon, and the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria

Hlengiwe Dube of the Centre for Human Rights explored the general terrain of disinformation in Africa, including the steadily evolving information disorder. She also highlighted the LEXOTA disinformation tracker created by a project led by Global Partners Digital with several African partners,  which was intended to ensure that limitations and controls on freedom of expression and access to information, as well as assembly and association, are minimised. 

Sheetal Kumar, the Head of Engagement and Advocacy at Global Partners Digital, said the tracker is an essential tool for exploring how laws and government actions against disinformation impact freedom of expression across Sub-Saharan Africa.  The tracker is an interactive platform that allows for real time checking and comparison of laws and actions taken in 44 out of 55 African countries in response to disinformation. It provides a reference point for developments and trends.

Edrine Wanyama, a Legal Officer at CIPESA, observed that disinformation has been widely employed by governments in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda  as a excuse to enact laws and adopt regulations and  policies that to curtail the digital civic space. As a result, access to the internet, access to information, freedom of expression, assembly and association and citizen participation in electoral democracy have been widely limited. Wanyama said that, as noted in the CIPESA research on Disinformation Pathways and Effects: Case Studies from Five African Countries, internet shutdowns during elections such as in Tanzania and Uganda were partly justified as a measure against disinformation, but led to questions about the credibility of the elections.  

While discussing the advocacy initiatives undertaken by the project, Sylvie Siyam, director at Protege QV, noted that during the Covid-19 pandemic, some governments introduced measures to combat disinformation which contravene regional and international human rights standards. She said some of those measures remain in place and continue to be used to curtail freedom of expression, access to information, assembly and association.

She called for multi-stakeholder engagement especially involving CSOs, parliaments, and relevant government entities to pursue progressive policy reforms such as was witnessed by the adoption of the access to information law in Zimbabwe. 

Most of the strategies employed by states to combat disinformation largely interfere with civil liberties. Laws and policies are often utilised to limit the space within which key players such as law dons, political dissidents, human rights defenders, journalists and online activists operate. The pinch has been widely felt through increased arrests, denial of fair trial rights, denial of participation in electoral democracy, censorship of the press, curtailment of freedom of expression and access to information and limiting enjoyment of economic freedoms.  

Alfred Bulakali, Deputy Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa, observed that disinformation endangers  civic space given the regressive measures that states often take, such as the enactment and adoption of retrogressive legislation. He called on states to use human rights-based approaches when responding to disinformation as a means to safeguarding civil liberties. Bulakali also stressed the need for capacity building of CSOs to effectively challenge regressive and draconian laws. 

The five partners provided the following joint recommendations for inclusion in the NGOs Statement to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) 77th Ordinary Session.

Recommendations for States:

  1. Review and revise disinformation laws to align with international and regional human rights law and standards, eliminating general prohibitions on vague and ambiguous information dissemination. Ensure they have a narrow scope, adequate safeguards, and cannot be weaponised against journalists and human rights defenders. Review punitive measures, repeal laws criminalising sedition and defamation in favour of civil sanctions, and ensure compliance with international human rights laws.
  2. Develop and implement laws that combat disinformation openly, inclusively, and transparently, consulting with stakeholders. Train relevant authorities on regulations without infringing human rights, clearly communicate penalties, and build safeguards against misuse.
  3. Build the capacity of relevant actors to address disinformation in compliance with international standards. This includes addressing disinformation with multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary solutions, including media literacy training, empowering fact-checkers, journalists, legislators, and regulators, taking into account vulnerable and marginalised groups, in compliance with international standards. 
  4. Conduct awareness-raising programmes on the information disorder.
  5. Desist from resorting to disproportionate measures that violate human rights like internet shutdowns or website blockages in response to disinformation. 
  6. Enact and enforce access to information laws with proactive disclosure of credible and accurate information.
  7. Create a conducive environment that promotes healthy information ecosystems and ensures that citizens have access to diverse, reliable information sources, either proactively or upon request, in line with international human rights standards on access to information.
  8. Fully enforce decisions and frameworks on decriminalisation of defamation and press libel, restrain from using specific laws to repress speech and media for information disclosure under vague disposals relating to false news.
  9. Integrate Information and Media Literacy into the curricula of journalism training centres and schools.
  10. Train law enforcement actors on public information disclosure, the protection of freedom of expression in their approach to tackling disinformation and the prevention of public and political propaganda and information manipulation.

Recommendations for Civil Society Organisations:

  1. Monitor, document, and raise awareness of illegitimate detentions or imprisonments related to disinformation charges.
  2. Strengthen the advocacy and capacity building initiatives that support legal reforms for human rights legislations and policies tackling disinformation.
  3. Include digital and media literacy in advocacy initiatives.

Recommendations for Regional and International Bodies:

  1. Issue clear guidance on how states should develop and enforce disinformation legislation in a rights-respecting manner, including through open, inclusive, and transparent policy processes and multi-stakeholder consultations.
  2. Denounce the use of disinformation laws for political purposes or to restrict the work of journalists and legitimate actors.
  3. Integrate information disorder as a priority in human rights, rule of law, democracy and governance frameworks under development cooperation (bilateral and multilateral cooperation) and access to information as a tool to achieve accountability on public governance and the Sustainable Development Agenda. 

Additional Recommendations to the African Commission Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information and other African Commission Special Mechanisms:

  1. Collaborate with stakeholders to address the information disorder in Africa.
  2. Promote the 2019 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa for addressing the information disorder.
  3. Continuously monitor and document disinformation trends and expand the normative framework to combat disinformation.
  4. Organise country visits in member countries where disinformation laws and press libels are used to restrict speech and citizen engagement.

Register for the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (#FIFAfrica23)!

By FIFAfrica |

Are you passionate about internet freedom and digital rights in Africa? Do you want to engage with and join the community advancing digital rights in Africa? Register to attend the upcoming 2023 edition of the  Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica23) and join a diverse community of stakeholders from across the continent and beyond to deliberate on the most pressing issues and opportunities for advancing online freedom. Registration is open for both in-person and remote attendance! 

FIFAfrica23 will take place in Dar es Salam, Tanzania on September 26-27 (pre-events by invitation only) and September 28-29 (main conference), 2023, hosted by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) in partnership with the Tanzanian Ministry of Information, Communications and Information Technology. The event will take place at the Hyatt Regency Dar es Salaam.

The Forum will mark a decade of bringing together policy makers, regulators, human rights defenders, academia, law enforcement representatives, media, and other actors to deliberate on gaps, concerns and opportunities for promoting privacy, free expression, non-discrimination, free flow of information and innovation online.

The FIFAfrica23 agenda will feature 10 tracks on a diversity of topics emerging from successful submissions to a recent open call for sessions.  The tracks include carefully curated panels, presentations, lightning talks, keynote addresses and workshops, through which participants at the Forum will have the opportunity to delve into the deeper layers of the digital rights and internet freedom landscape in Africa and collaborative interventions to address the challenges and harness the opportunities of a more open and inclusive internet in Africa.

You can register here and also take note of the event Code of Conduct and Travel note which includes logistical information.

Don’t miss this chance to be part of this landmark event and contribute to advancing internet freedom in Africa!

Be sure to follow @cipesaug on social media and join the online conversation using the hashtags #FIFAfrica23 #InternetFreedomAfrica.

Navigating the Threats To Journalism in Uganda

By Brian Byaruhanga |

Over the years, journalists in Uganda have confronted a relentless tide of harassment, censorship, and physical violence as they diligently performed their duty. As reported by the Press Freedom Index, compiled by the Human Rights Network of Journalists, incidents of violations and abuse against journalists in Uganda have surged over recent years, climbing from 163 in 2018, to 165 in 2019, peaking at 174 in 2020, and 131 violations in 2021, culminating with Uganda dropping 7 (seven) places to 132 out of 180 countries from the 2021 rankings by the Freedom in the World Report in 2022. These transgressions are primarily orchestrated by regulatory authorities and security agencies. While challenges to journalism in Uganda are not novel, the advent of digital transformation and emergent technologies has infused new complexities into the landscape of press freedom and journalism practice in the country.

The ubiquity of digital technology has afforded journalists the ability to disseminate information rapidly. However, this swiftness has ushered in a suite of challenges to the very essence of journalism. It has engendered a proliferation of misinformation and disinformation, the imposition and acceptance of repressive legal frameworks, and the establishment of intricate content moderation systems.

In 2018, the Ugandan government, ostensibly to counteract the spread of what it pejoratively termed “gossip,” levied a tax on social media. This move was interpreted by critics as an effort to curtail freedom of speech and suppress dissenting viewpoints. Though, after years of resistance, this tax was ultimately overturned, it starkly illuminated the strained relationship between the government and the media.

In July 2022, the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill was introduced in the Ugandan Parliament, a piece of legislation that later became law. It outlined a fresh set of offenses, subject to punitive penalties of imprisonment and fines. The bill was devised to “prohibit the sending or sharing of information that promotes hate speech” and “provide for the prohibition of sending or sharing false, malicious, and unsolicited information.” It also sought to define and penalize hate speech. 

See this CIPESA analysis of the  Computer Misuse Amendment Bill 2022.

According to the bill, “a person shall not write, send or share any information through a computer, which is likely to ridicule, degrade, or demean another person, group of persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion or gender; create divisions among persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion, or gender; or promote hostility against a person, group of persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion, or gender.”

Less than three months following its introduction, the Ugandan Computer Misuse Amendment Act of 2022 came into force, receiving the presidential assent of H.E Yoweri Kaguta Museveni on October 14, 2022.

These legislative measures appear to cloak attempts at content moderation under the guise of instilling self-censorship and disseminating fear regarding the sharing of information. Moreover, state surveillance emerges as another potent tool wielded against journalists, perpetuating reports of harassment, arrests, and detentions, often facilitated through state-sanctioned surveillance activities. There have also been allegations of the government employing spyware to target journalists and activists.

In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 general elections, the Ugandan government implemented stringent surveillance protocols while intensifying existing restrictions on free expression. This crackdown became particularly conspicuous after a cohort of Ugandan investigative journalists received notifications that their devices had been compromised by Pegasus, a spy software enabling operators to extract messages, photos, emails, record calls, and clandestinely activate microphones and cameras. Notably, this software is attributed to the Israeli spyware firm, NSO Group, which officially supplies the Pegasus software to military, law enforcement, and government intelligence agencies for the purpose of targeting criminals and terrorists. However, multiple reports surfaced indicating the use of the software against politicians, journalists, and activists. Investigative journalist Canary Mugume was among the few who received an alert from Apple, signalling that state-sponsored attackers may be targeting his phone.

The escalating adoption of technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning also invokes apprehension. While these technologies have the potential to enhance journalistic work, they also harbor the capacity to manipulate information and undermine the credibility of journalists. A notable example is the use of deepfake technology, capable of crafting persuasive yet fabricated videos or audio recordings, employed to discredit journalists and their work.

To address these threats to journalism in Uganda, it is imperative for journalists to embrace digital resilient practices, safeguarding their sources and their work. Additionally, media organizations should make investments in technologies capable of detecting and countering disinformation and misinformation.

The perils of disinformation and misinformation, state surveillance, arbitrary arrests, harassment, and brutality pose substantial challenges to the function of journalists and the role of media in a democratic society. Overcoming these challenges necessitates concerted efforts by journalists, media organizations, governments, civil society, and international entities to champion a free and independent media that effectively serves the public interest.

It is therefore imperative to acknowledge that journalists operate within an ever-evolving media and digital milieu. And proactive measures must be adopted to ensure their digital security through the implementation of appropriate precautions and the ongoing pursuit of the latest security measures. Specifically, journalists must undertake the following steps to safeguard their well-being while executing their professional responsibilities:

Digital Security Training: Journalists should participate in digital security training to acquire knowledge on how to protect themselves and their sources online. These training programs offer guidance on encrypting communications, securing devices, and maintaining anonymity.

Use of Encryption: Journalists should employ encryption tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), encrypted messaging applications, and secure email services to ensure the security of their communications and data, safeguarding them from interception and surveillance.

Secure Data Storage: Journalists should adopt secure data storage practices, including the utilization of encrypted external hard drives, password-protected archives, and encrypted cloud storage services. These measures prevent unauthorized access and data breaches.

Two-Factor Authentication: To fortify their online security, journalists should implement two-factor authentication for their digital accounts. This extra layer of protection safeguards their accounts against unauthorized access.

Caution with Social Media: Journalists must exercise prudence on social media platforms. They should refrain from disseminating sensitive information and limit the extent of personal details shared online, thus mitigating the risk of exposing themselves or their sources to harm.

Practicing Situational Awareness: Maintaining an acute awareness of their surroundings is crucial for journalists, especially when conducting interviews or reporting from the field. This involves steering clear of hazardous areas and being vigilant for potential threats, ensuring their physical safety while pursuing their professional duties.

Use of Secure Networks: Public Wi-Fi networks, often unsecured, are susceptible to interception. Journalists should avoid their use and instead opt for secure networks or establish their own hotspots, reducing the risk of compromising sensitive data.

In navigating the multifaceted threats to journalism in Uganda, journalists must adopt a multifaceted approach encompassing personal digital security measures, collective industry efforts, and international advocacy for press freedom and journalists’ safety. These actions, coupled with unwavering commitment, will enable journalists to continue their indispensable work, promoting transparency, accountability, and democracy, even in the face of mounting challenges in the digital age.

Through the tireless pursuit of these strategies, journalists in Uganda can reinforce their resilience, fortify their commitment to truth-telling, and persevere in upholding the fundamental principles of journalism – principles that serve not only the interests of a free press but also the broader cause of democracy and informed citizenship. In this era of digital transformation, journalism remains an essential pillar of democracy and an indispensable guardian of society’s well-being. In conclusion, navigating the evolving landscape of journalism in Uganda demands not only the adoption of technical safeguards but also unwavering resolve. The challenges faced by journalists serve as a testament to the vitality of their work in safeguarding democratic values. In embracing the digital era, journalists must continue to shine a light on truth, accountability, and justice, thereby preserving the foundations of a vibrant, free, and democratic society.

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