African Civic Tech and COVID-19: Five Emerging Trends

By Melissa Zisengwe |

Africa has a growing civic tech community that focuses on issues such as accountability and transparency, data journalism, citizen participation, and public services monitoring. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, various technologies have been deployed by citizens, civil society organisation, start-ups, private companies, universities and governments to aid the fight against COVID-19.  Specifically, the civic tech community has created several innovations or adapted and repurposed existing resources to confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

The findings resulting from interviews conducted with civic tech innovations from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda indicate that the potential for technology to facilitate the fight against COVID-19 is clear. Across the continent, the emerging trends include contact tracing, instant messaging, digital governance, information dashboards and predictions and debunking misinformation.

For instance, platforms leveraging instant messaging applications such as GovChat and Grassroot in South Africa, as well as Uganda’s Ministry of Health Chatbot have supported remote government-citizen interactions, community organising and access to information, respectively in compliance with national COVID-19 standard operating procedures. Similarly, there has been a shift in governments’ adoption and use of technology, with many operations such as  the judiciary in Kenya and emergency services in Uganda moving online.

Further, the use of data mining and spatial analysis techniques to aid analysis into  the spread of the virus at provincial level in South Africa, and functioning of health centres in Burkina Faso indicates that the civic tech community, along with the private sector and the government, appreciate the importance of access to information in a pandemic.

While dashboards are keeping citizens updated on Coronavirus related news, some organisations are taking it a step further to ensure that citizens receive the accurate information and stop the spread of the disinfodemic, which is the spread of unverified, untrue information about the disease. This is being achieved through virtual games in Uganda and live guides among others.

 In several countries, organisations, governments and companies are reported to have employed digital contact tracing measures. Although the extent of this trend is unknown, common practices include contact tracing apps, CCTV surveillance, and cell phone location data tracking.

While these contact tracing apps and efforts could indeed aid the countries in their fight against COVID-19, they present some concerns over data privacy and surveillance. Tracking via mobile technology means personal information such as an individual’s location and movements, and their COVID-19 status could be disclosed without consent and oversight mechanisms for protection and accountability.

The trends above show that the civic tech community in Africa is willing to do their part in society and that innovation is not always a shiny new app or product; rather, sometimes it is existing tools and methodologies which can be repurposed to respond to  emerging needs. While these tools have been instrumental in shaping the fight against COVID-19, user sensitisation towards increased adoption during and in the aftermath of the pandemic remains crucial.

Read the full brief here.


Melissa Zisengwe is a 2020 CIPESA Fellow focussing on the area of civic technology in Africa.

Joint Civil Society Statement: States Use of Digital Surveillance Technologies to Fight Pandemic Must Respect Human Rights

Joint Statement |

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global public health emergency that requires a coordinated and large-scale response by governments worldwide. However, States’ efforts to contain the virus must not be used as a cover to usher in a new era of greatly expanded systems of invasive digital surveillance.

We, the undersigned organizations, urge governments to show leadership in tackling the pandemic in a way that ensures that the use of digital technologies to track and monitor individuals and populations is carried out strictly in line with human rights.

Technology can and should play an important role during this effort to save lives, such as to spread public health messages and increase access to health care. However, an increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in ways that could violate rights and degrade trust in public authorities – undermining the effectiveness of any public health response. Such measures also pose a risk of discrimination and may disproportionately harm already marginalized communities.

These are extraordinary times, but human rights law still applies. Indeed, the human rights framework is designed to ensure that different rights can be carefully balanced to protect individuals and wider societies. States cannot simply disregard rights such as privacy and freedom of expression in the name of tackling a public health crisis. On the contrary, protecting human rights also promotes public health. Now more than ever, governments must rigorously ensure that any restrictions to these rights is in line with long-established human rights safeguards.

This crisis offers an opportunity to demonstrate our shared humanity. We can make extraordinary efforts to fight this pandemic that are consistent with human rights standards and the rule of law. The decisions that governments make now to confront the pandemic will shape what the world looks like in the future.

We call on all governments not to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with increased digital surveillance unless the following conditions are met:

  1. Surveillance measures adopted to address the pandemic must be lawful, necessary and proportionate. They must be provided for by law and must be justified by legitimate public health objectives, as determined by the appropriate public health authorities, and be proportionate to those needs. Governments must be transparent about the measures they are taking so that they can be scrutinized and if appropriate later modified, retracted, or overturned. We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse for indiscriminate mass surveillance.
  2. If governments expand monitoring and surveillance powers then such powers must be time-bound, and only continue for as long as necessary to address the current pandemic. We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse for indefinite surveillance
  3. States must ensure that increased collection, retention, and aggregation of personal data, including health data, is only used for the purposes of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Data collected, Fed, and aggregated to respond to the pandemic must be limited in scope, time-bound in relation to the pandemic and must not be used for commercial or any other purposes. We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse to gut individual’s right to privacy.
  4. Governments must take every effort to protect people’s data, including ensuring sufficient security of any personal data collected and of any devices, applications, networks, or services involved in collection, transmission, processing, and storage. Any claims that data is anonymous must be based on evidence and supported with sufficient information regarding how it has been anonymized. We cannot allow attempts to respond to this pandemic to be used as justification for compromising people’s digital safety.
  5. Any use of digital surveillance technologies in responding to COVID-19, including big data and artificial intelligence systems, must address the risk that these tools will facilitate discrimination and other rights abuses against racial minorities, people living in poverty, and other marginalized populations, whose needs and lived realities may be obscured or misrepresented in large datasets. We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to further increase the gap in the enjoyment of human rights between different groups in society.
  6. If governments enter into data sharing agreements with other public or private sector entities, they must be based on law, and the existence of these agreements and information necessary to assess their impact on privacy and human rights must be publicly disclosed – in writing, with sunset clauses, public oversight and other safeguards by default. Businesses involved in efforts by governments to tackle COVID-19 must undertake due diligence to ensure they respect human rights, and ensure any intervention is firewalled from other business and commercial interests. We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse for keeping people in the dark about what information their governments are gathering and sharing with third parties.
  7. Any response must incorporate accountability protections and safeguards against abuse. Increased surveillance efforts related to COVID-19 should not fall under the domain of security or intelligence agencies and must be subject to effective oversight by appropriate independent bodies. Further, individuals must be given the opportunity to know about and challenge any COVID-19 related measures to collect, aggregate, and retain, and use data. Individuals who have been subjected to surveillance must have access to effective remedies.
  8. COVID-19 related responses that include data collection efforts should include means for free, active, and meaningful participation of relevant stakeholders, in particular experts in the public health sector and the most marginalized population groups.

Signatories:

7amleh – Arab Center for Social Media Advancement

Access Now

African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms Coalition

AI Now

Algorithm Watch

Alternatif Bilisim

Amnesty International

ApTI

ARTICLE 19

Asociación para una Ciudadanía Participativa, ACI Participa

Association for Progressive Communications (APC)

ASUTIC, Senegal

Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization

Barracón Digital

Big Brother Watch

Bits of Freedom

Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD)

Center for Digital Democracy

Center for Economic Justice

Centro De Estudios Constitucionales y de Derechos Humanos de Rosario

Chaos Computer Club – CCC

Citizen D / Državljan D

Civil Liberties Union for Europe

CódigoSur

Coding Rights

Coletivo Brasil de Comunicação Social

Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)

Comité por la Libre Expresión (C-Libre)

Committee to Protect Journalists

Consumer Action

Consumer Federation of America

Cooperativa Tierra Común

Creative Commons Uruguay

D3 – Defesa dos Direitos Digitais

Data Privacy Brasil

Democratic Transition and Human Rights Support Center “DAAM”

Derechos Digitales

Digital Rights Lawyers Initiative (DRLI)

Digital Security Lab Ukraine

Digitalcourage

EPIC

epicenter.works

European Digital Rights – EDRi

Fitug

Foundation for Information Policy Research

Foundation for Media Alternatives

Fundación Acceso (Centroamérica)

Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo, Ecuador

Fundación Datos Protegidos

Fundación Internet Bolivia

Fundación Taigüey, República Dominicana

Fundación Vía Libre

Hermes Center

Hiperderecho

Homo Digitalis

Human Rights Watch

Hungarian Civil Liberties Union

ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies

Index on Censorship

Initiative für Netzfreiheit

Innovation for Change – Middle East and North Africa

International Commission of Jurists

International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

Intervozes – Coletivo Brasil de Comunicação Social

Ipandetec

IPPF

Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)

IT-Political Association of Denmark

Iuridicum Remedium z.s. (IURE)

Karisma

La Quadrature du Net

Liberia Information Technology Student Union

Liberty

Luchadoras

Majal.org

Masaar “Community for Technology and Law”

Media Rights Agenda (Nigeria)

MENA Rights Group

Metamorphosis Foundation

New America’s Open Technology Institute

Observacom

Open Data Institute

Open Rights Group

OpenMedia

OutRight Action International

Pangea

Panoptykon Foundation

Paradigm Initiative (PIN)

PEN International

Privacy International

Public Citizen

Public Knowledge

R3D: Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales

RedesAyuda

SHARE Foundation

Skyline International for Human Rights

Sursiendo

Swedish Consumers’ Association

Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)

Tech Inquiry

TechHerNG

TEDIC

The Bachchao Project

Unwanted Witness, Uganda

WITNESS

World Wide Web Foundation

L'Afrique Face à de Nouveaux Systèmes de Désinformation et de Surveillance Qui Sapent la Démocratie

Par Daniel Mwesigwa |

Une gamme de fournisseurs de logiciels espions, dont la firme italienne Hacking Team, l’anglo-germanique Gamma Group et l’israélienne NSO Group, ont trouvé un marché ouvert auprès des gouvernements autoritaires et répressifs en Afrique et ailleurs. De même, des campagnes de propagande systématiques conçues par des acteurs fantaisistes – y compris des agents du gouvernement et des entreprises ambitieuses d’analyse de données telles que Cambridge Analytica travaillant pour le compte d’acteurs étatiques et non étatiques – deviennent de plus en plus visibles en Afrique, en particulier pendant les périodes électorales.

Les outils et tactiques de ces opérateurs, pour la plupart non africains, sapent de plus en plus la démocratie et le respect des droits humains en Afrique, car ils permettent une surveillance de masse et une désinformation qui manipule et sape le discours politique.

Lire également: L’écriture en quête de liberté: politique et droits numériques en Afrique

Par exemple, le quotidien Wall Street Journal a révélé dans le détail le 15 août 2019 comment le géant chinois de la technologie Huawei et ses techniciens avaient aidé la police ougandaise à pirater les communications cryptées d’une figure de l’opposition. Les agents de sécurité ont ainsi pu contrecarrer les plans de mobilisation du chef de l’opposition. L’article indiquait également que des techniciens de Huawei avaient aidé les autorités zambiennes à accéder aux téléphones et aux pages de médias sociaux d’un groupe de blogueurs de l’opposition qui avaient été traqués et arrêtés.

Grâce à des failles de sécurité, les outils et logiciels espions confèrent aux gouvernements, notamment aux services de renseignement et d’application de la loi, des pouvoirs immenses pour surveiller l’utilisation de systèmes d’intrusion secrets sur les principales plates-formes mobiles et systèmes d’exploitation. En 2016, le Citizen Lab, un laboratoire interdisciplinaire travaillant à l’intersection des affaires mondiales et de la technologie à l’Université de Toronto, a découvert Pegasus – un malware sophistiqué développé par la firme israélienne NSO Group qui est injecté dans le téléphone d’une cible via du texte ou WhatsApp, l’outil de messagerie populaire en Afrique. Le Citizen Lab a depuis identifié les opérations de Pegasus dans plus de 45 pays, dont l’Algérie, l’Égypte, la Côte d’Ivoire, le Kenya, le Maroc, le Rwanda, l’Afrique du Sud, le Togo, l’Ouganda et la Zambie. Mais NSO se serait vanté maintes et maintes fois comment elle pouvait pénétrer divers systèmes d’exploitation et applications indépendamment des correctifs de sécurité.

Selon le Rapport 2019 sur l’état de la liberté d’Internet en Afrique, “l’état de surveillance” en Afrique a acquis une notoriété au tournant de la décennie, après le tristement célèbre printemps arabe qui a balayé l’Afrique du Nord en 2011, qui aurait été amplifié par des voix dissidentes sur les réseaux sociaux. Le rapport montre comment des États répressifs tels que la Tanzanie, l’Ouganda, l’Éthiopie, le Botswana et le Rwanda ont depuis renforcé leurs capacités de surveillance en achetant des logiciels espions avancés. En 2015, il a été révélé que l’Ouganda et la Tanzanie avaient acheté le système de contrôle à distance (RCS) premium de Hacking Team pour l’intrusion dans les systèmes des principales plates-formes mobiles et systèmes d’exploitation.

Plus récemment, le Financial Times a rapporté que le Rwanda avait versé jusqu’à 10 millions de dollars américains au groupe NSO pour espionner les critiques et dissidents du gouvernement via WhatsApp – une allégation que le président rwandais M. Paul Kagame a démentie lors d’un point de presse présidentiel tenu le 8 novembre 2019, reconnaissant seulement qu’ils espionnent “nos ennemis” en utilisant “l’intelligence humaine”. Il a ajouté: “Je ne dépenserais pas mon argent pour des non-personne [les exilés rwandais], nous avons des secteurs comme l’éducation pour dépenser cet argent”.

Toutefois le déni de M. Kagame doit être pris avec prudence. En 2016, un tribunal rwandais a condamné un chanteur populaire, M. Kizito Mihigo, à 10 ans de prison pour des allégations de complot en vue de renverser le gouvernement, sur la base de messages WhatsApp et Skype échangés en privé piratés avec de prétendus dissidents en exil.

Les cas présumés du Rwanda semblent être liés à d’autres cas dans lesquels NSO a infiltré des comptes WhatsApp de journalistes, de militants des droits de l’homme, de dissidents politiques, d’éminentes femmes dirigeantes et d’autres membres de la société civile dans jusqu’à 20 pays, ce qui a incité Facebook (propriétaire de WhatsApp ) à poursuivre NSO en octobre 2019. Le procès intenté par Facebook devant la Cour fédérale des États-Unis accuse le fabricant de logiciels espions d’avoir piraté les comptes WhatsApp de 1 400 utilisateurs dans le monde. Bien que l’on ne dispose que de peu de détails sur l’identité exacte des personnes touchées, 174 personnes sont des avocats, des journalistes, des défenseurs des droits de l’homme et des chefs religieux.

Selon le Financial Times, six des personnes ciblées au Rwanda, ont été interviewées et ont confirmé avoir été alertées par WhatsApp sur la possible surveillance par NSO de leurs communications. Il s’agit notamment d’un journaliste vivant en exil en Ouganda qui avait adressé une demande au gouvernement ougandais “d’aider à protéger les Rwandais du pays contre les assassinats”, des personnalités de l’opposition vivant en Afrique du Sud et en Grande Bretagne membres du Rwanda National Congress (RNC), un groupe d’opposition en exil; d’un officier de l’armée qui a fui le Rwanda en 2008 et a témoigné contre des membres du gouvernement rwandais devant un tribunal français en 2017, et d’un membre belge du parti d’opposition FDU-Inkingi.

Pendant ce temps, certaines puissances étrangères testent prétendument, comme l’a récemment rapporté le New York Times, “de nouvelles tactiques de désinformation en Afrique pour étendre leur influence”. Le rapport détaille comment le groupe Wagner fondé par l’homme d’affaires Yevgeny Prigozhin, qui aurait des liens étroits avec le gouvernement russe, a mené ces dernières années des campagnes de désinformation agressives sur Facebook.

Il est rapporté que la campagne de Prigozhin a utilisé des comptes Facebook ouverts localement pour dissimuler son comportement et a également utilisé des réseaux de nouvelles factices qui republient régulièrement des articles de l’organisation de presse publique russe Sputnik pour promouvoir les politiques russes tout en sapant les politiques américaines et françaises en Afrique. Le 31 octobre 2019, Facebook aurait supprimé ces comptes qui influençaient les opérations “dans la politique intérieure” de huit pays africains – le Cameroun, la République centrafricaine, le Congo Brazzaville, la Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, le Mozambique et le Soudan.

Plus tôt en 2019, Facebook aurait fermé une opération distincte de “fake news” ciblant les élections dans des pays africains tels que le Nigeria, le Sénégal, le Togo, le Niger, l’Angola et la Tunisie, propagée par des comptes “inauthentiques” sur Facebook et Instagram gérés par une société commerciale israélienne, Groupe Archimède. Entre 2013 et 2017, des gouvernements tels que celui du Kenya et du Nigéria auraient engagé Cambridge Analytica pour manipuler l’électorat dans le but de faire remporter les élections présidentielles par les candidats sortants.

Outre les campagnes de désinformation liées aux acteurs russes et les logiciels espions fabriqués en Israël, il existe également des programmes de surveillance par reconnaissance faciale tels que les “Smart Cities” de Huawei, qui ont été déployés dans 12 pays africains. Certains considèrent ce phénomène           comme une exportation de l’autoritarisme numérique.

Il est désormais évident que les gouvernements et des acteurs non étatiques ont la tâche ardue de relever les défis de gouvernance causés par ce phénomène. Par conséquent, avec l’aide de plateformes technologiques, les gouvernements doivent comprendre quelles lois et politiques, y compris les mécanismes de contrôle et d’application, sont nécessaires pour renforcer la protection de la démocratie et des droits de l’homme dans un monde numérique en rapide évolution.

Africa in the Crosshairs of New Disinformation and Surveillance Schemes That Undermine Democracy

By Daniel Mwesigwa |

A range of spyware vendors including Italian Hacking Team, the Anglo-German Gamma Group, and Israeli’s NSO Group, have found a ready market in authoritarian and repressive governments in Africa and elsewhere. Similarly, systematic propaganda campaigns designed by meddlesome actors – including government agents and ambitious data analytics companies such as Cambridge Analytica working on behalf of state and non-state actors – are becoming conspicuous in Africa, especially during electoral periods. 

The tools and tactics of these operators, who are mostly non-African, are increasingly undermining democracy and respect for human rights in Africa, as they enable mass surveillance and disinformation that manipulates and undermines political discourse. 

For example, Chinese tech giant Huawei and its technicians were implicated in an August 15, 2019 exposé by The Wall Street Journal that detailed how the company’s staff had helped the Uganda Police to hack into the encrypted communications of an opposition figure. As a result, the security officers were able to thwart the opposition leader’s mobilisation plans. The article also stated that technicians from Huawei had helped Zambian authorities to access the phones and social media pages of a group of opposition bloggers who were tracked and arrested. 

Through security vulnerabilities, spyware tools and products give governments, notably intelligence and law enforcement authorities, super powers to surveil using covert intrusion systems across major mobile platforms and operating systems. In 2016, the Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary lab working at the intersection of global affairs and technology at the University of Toronto, uncovered Pegasus – a sophisticated malware developed by the NSO Group that is injected into a target’s phone via text or WhatsApp, a popular messaging tool in Africa. The Citizen Lab has since identified Pegasus operations in over 45 countries including Algeria, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia. But NSO has reportedly bragged time and again how it can penetrate various operating systems and applications irrespective of the security patches.

According to the 2019 State of Internet Freedom in Africa Report, the “surveillance state” in Africa gained notoriety at the turn of the decade, after the infamous Arab Spring that swept across North Africa in 2011, allegedly amplified by dissident voices on social media. The report documents how repressive states such as Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Botswana, and Rwanda have since boosted their surveillance capabilities through procurement of advanced spyware. In 2015, it was revealed that Uganda and Tanzania had procured Hacking Team’s premium Remote Control System (RCS) for intrusion into systems across major mobile platforms and operating systems. 

More recently, the Financial Times reported that Rwanda paid up to USD 10 million to the NSO Group to spy on government critics and dissidents through WhatsApp – an allegation Rwanda president Paul Kagame denied in a presidential press briefing held on November 8, 2019, only acknowledging that they spy on “our enemies” using “human intelligence”. He added, “I wouldn’t spend my money over a nobody [Rwandan exiles] yet we have sectors like education to spend such money”. 

But Kagame’s denial is to be taken with a pinch of salt. In 2016, a Rwandan court sentenced a popular singer, Kizito Mihigo, to 10 years in prison on allegations of conspiracy to overthrow the government, based on hacked private WhatsApp and Skype messages exchanged with alleged dissidents in exile. 

The alleged Rwanda cases appear to be linked to others of NSO infiltrating the WhatsApp accounts of journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents, prominent female leaders, and other members of civil society in up to 20 countries, which prompted Facebook (the owners of WhatsApp) to sue NSO in October 2019. The lawsuit brought by Facebook in the U.S Federal Court accuses the spyware maker of hacking into the WhatsApp accounts of 1,400 users worldwide. While there are scanty details on the exact identities of the affected, it is reported that 174 are lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders and religious leaders.

According to the Financial Times, those targeted in Rwanda, six of whom it interviewed and they confirmed being alerted by WhatsApp about the possible NSO-enabled surveillance of their communications. These included a journalist living in exile in Uganda, who had petitioned the Uganda government “to help protect Rwandans in the country from assassination”; South Africa and UK-based senior members of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group in exile; an army officer who fled Rwanda  in 2008 and testified against members of the Rwandan government in a French court in 2017; and a Belgium-based member of the FDU-Inkingi opposition party.

Meanwhile, some foreign powers are purportedly testing, as New York Times recently reported, “New Disinformation Tactics in Africa to Expand Influence”. The report detailed how the Wagner Group founded by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who allegedly has close ties to the Russian government, has over the last couple of years been running aggressive disinformation campaigns on Facebook. 

It is reported that Prigozhin’s campaign used locally-opened Facebook accounts to disguise behaviour and also used sham news networks that regularly reposted articles from Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news organisation to promote Russian policies while undermining US and French policies in Africa. On October 31, 2019, Facebook reportedly removed these accounts that were influencing operations “in the domestic politics” of eight African countries – Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan.

Earlier in 2019, Facebook reportedly shut down a separate “fake news” operation targeting elections in African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Niger, Angola, and Tunisia, propagated by “inauthentic” accounts on Facebook and Instagram run by Israeli commercial firm, Archimedes Group.  Between 2013 to 2017, governments such as Kenya and Nigeria reportedly hired Cambridge Analytica to manipulate their electorate in a bid to win presidential elections for the incumbents.

Besides the disinformation campaigns linked to Russian actors, and the Israel-made spyware, there are also facial recognition surveillance programmes such as the Huawei’s “Smart Cities”, which has been deployed in 12 African countries. This phenomenon is referred to by some as an export of digital authoritarianism. 

It is now evident that governments and non-state actors face an uphill task of combatting the governance challenges caused by this phenomenon. Accordingly, governments, with the help of tech platforms, need to understand what legislation and policies, including oversight and enforcement mechanisms, are necessary to strengthen the protection of democracy and human rights in the rapidly changing digital world.

Zone 9 Bloggers To Speak on Censorship, Repression and Surveillance at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 (FIFAfrica18)

Announcement |
In order to contribute to the democratic discourse in Ethiopia, in May 2012, nine individuals formed the Zone 9 blogging collective – a loose network of activists regularly blogging and campaigning on human and democratic rights. However, two weeks after the launch of the initiative, the Ethiopian government blocked access to the collective’s online platform. In April 2014, six members of the collective were jailed on allegations of working with foreign organisations and rights activists by “using social media to destabilise the country.” The other three members fled into exile.
At the upcoming Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 (FIFAfrica18) members from the collective will share a stage and speak on their experiences of censorship, repression and surveillance. In an hour and half long session, members of the collective will share their stories including the tactics employed by the state to surveil and censor them, their trial, imprisonment for 15-18 months, and post-incarceration trauma. Their participation will serve as a means of raising awareness on the realities of being an activist in a repressive state and life after release from incarceration.
See draft Forum agenda
The collective gets its name from the eight zones of the notorious Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa where political prisoners are housed. The ninth zone is a metaphorical extension of the zones to apply to the rest of the country due to the harsh controls on freedom of speech and association across Ethiopia at the time.
In February 2018, after six years of facing charges that included terrorism and inciting violence, prosecutors in Ethiopia dropped all charges against the last members of the collective that still faced prosecution.  The announcement came as part of ongoing economic and political reforms in the country since the resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn in February 2018, and appointment of a new premier, Abiye Ahmed, two months later.
Since then, the government has freed thousands of prisoners; announced measures to liberalise the telecom  sector; and dropped charges against many opposition leaders, bloggers, and activists. Further, the new administration has lifted the state of emergency that had been reinstated in February 2018, reconnected mobile and broadband internet services that were cut off since 2016, and unblocked 246 websites, blogs, and news sites that had been inaccessible for over a decade.
See more about Ethiopia’s reforms.


Who are the Zone 9 Bloggers?

Zelalem Kibret is an Ethiopian scholar and blogger. He was previously a Scholar-at-Risk fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, at New York University School of Law. By training, Zelalem is a lawyer specialised in Public International Law. Until April 2014, he was a Professor of law at Ambo University in Ethiopia.
Among his interests is research which focuses on transitional politics and justice, traditional justice, individuals in international law, counter-terrorism, new social movements, and liberation technology.
Zelalem is the co-recipient of the 2015 Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) International Press Freedom award and the 2015 Reporter Sans Frontieres’ (RSF) Citizen-Journalist award. He earned his LL.M degree from Addis Ababa University in Public International Law.



Nathenael Feleqe Aberra is a co-founding member of Zone 9 Activists and Blogging collective. He is an active member of the Ethiopian Economics Association and a full time employee in a financial intuition in Ethiopia  with close to eight years’ experience in Human Resource Management. His interest areas include Economic Development, Democracy and Human Rights.
 



Jomanex Kasaye | Born and raised in “the jewel of rift valley” – Adama also known as Nazareth located 90 km from the capital Addis Ababa, Jomanex is an Information Technology enthusiast, who has previously worked as a tutor and system administrator in addition to running his own businesses. He is a co-founding member of the Zone 9 Activists and Blogging collective and now lives in exile.


Befekadu Hailu Techane describes himself as a Management Information Systems (MIS) expert by profession who turned a writer by inclination. His novella titled “Children of Their Parents” won the Bill Burt Award for African Literature (Ethiopia) in 2012. He has worked as an editor for Enqu Magazine, editor-in-chief for Weyeyet Magazine and volunteering editor for Global Voices [all in Amharic]. His blogging and activism work has seen him jailed four times – including an 18 month detention period. Befekadu is among the co-founders of the Zone 9 Activists and Blogging collective.
He currently works as a columnist for Duestche Welle Amharic Service, as a freelancing journalist for ethiotube.net, an internet TV channel, and part-time program coordinator for Ethiopian Human Rights Project.



Atnafu Brhane is a blogger and human rights activist in addition to being one of the co-founders of the Zone 9 Activists and Blogging collective. He began his career as an IT expert for a local administration office in Ethiopia before joining the collective. He also worked with Article 19 East Africa to give digital security trainings for human rights activists and journalists.
His work with the collective saw him get arrested and charged with terrorism in 2014 following which he spent 18 months in prison. He currently works as Digital Media Coordinator and Campaigner for  the Ethiopia Human Rights Project.


Abel Wabella describes himself as a passionate storyteller, who is fascinated by the commencement of the digital era. As a social media marketer, Abel has developed a sound knowledge of new media tools and techniques. Since he started blogging in 2011, he has engaged in social media activism, humanitarian advocacy, social justice projects, localisation and business projects.
As such, Abel shifted his career interests from mechanical engineering into the media arena. His work saw him detained, which served to further fuel his activism. Abel has a vast virtual office experience and is a member of the Global Voices volunteer community of more than 1,400 writers, analysts, online media experts, and translators, which localises its content into 40 languages including Amharic. He is also a co-founder of the Zone 9 Activists and Blogging collective.
Abel is currently working on newly established media called Gobena Street.