Participant Reflection on #FIFAfrica22: Effective Engagement in the UPR Process for Digital Rights Promotion

By Murungi Judith |

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Small Media held a workshop on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process as part of  Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica 22), which was held in Lusaka Zambia from September 26-29, 2022. The workshop is a product of the UPROAR project aimed at advancing the cause of digital rights globally by supporting engagement in international advocacy at the UPR. 

The 32 participants at the workshop represented a diverse array of backgrounds including  civil society, digital rights activism and advocacy, legal, journalism, and academia.  A total of  20 countries were also represented -Benin,Burundi, Botswana,  Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, India Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria,  Senegal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania,Uganda,United Kingdom, United States of America, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The workshop entailed an overview of the UPR, its  purpose and the processes. Also included were in depth  discussions on international and regional normative frameworks on digital rights. Specific attention was drawn to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the first normative framework on freedom of expression. The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was also explored under the core tenets of the right to hold opinions without interference (freedom of opinion), the right to seek and receive information (access to information) and the right to impart information (freedom of expression).

It was noted that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and that the three-part test is key in determining the circumstances which potentially justify limitations. Under Article 19 (2) of the ICCPR, limitations are specifically listed as ( i) it must be provided for in law (ii) it must pursue a legitimate aim (iii) it must be necessary for a legitimate purpose.

The three-part-test formed the basis of heated debate related to electoral democracy and internet shutdowns in countries like Cameroon and Tanzania when compared to Kenya where the government did not impose an internet shutdown during their recent elections. As a result of the comparative discussions, participants reached  the conclusion that there are still actions of governments that are a threat to internet freedom such as arrests, detention and assassination of some journalists. It is the responsibility of civil society, activists and human rights defenders to hold governments accountable through the use and increased participation in the UPR process. 

The presence of Hon. Neema Lugangira from Tanzania, a member of Tanzanian Parliament and the Chairperson of the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance in the sessions was priceless and a beacon of hope in bridging the gap between civil society and policy makers towards promoting digital rights through the UPR.

The workshop also explored various case law on freedom of expression in Africa including precedent such as in Lohé Issa Konaté v Burkina Faso. Participants deliberated on the relevance of evaluating and critically assessing the law and ensuring that cases are framed in a manner that is in line with the jurisdiction of the particular court of law approached without which matters could be thrown out. This session gave the participants a clear understanding of the link between offline and online rights and specific laws that apply to minority and marginalised groups such as children, women, persons with disabilities and other vulnerable communities. 

The session on campaign and advocacy planning aimed at equipping participants with the necessary tools required to engage partners on how to carry out campaigns and to execute advocacy strategies through the UPR. It highlighted the eye-catching and precise advocacy materials that could be used in social media as well as other platforms for the UPR at local level. It led to discussions on the critical role played by local stakeholders in leveraging the UPR for digital rights development in their various contexts. The session helped the participants understand how to engage with local partners and to ensure that there is effective implementation of recommendations made to their respective countries. This involved fact sheets and how to use them during the UPR process. 

Participants engaged in a practical lobbying session where they had to appear before a UN delegate and present the issues affecting digital rights in their respective countries and recommendations for reform. This practical group exercise was very beneficial and informative because it gave the participants a chance to apply what they had learnt in regard to the UPR process. It gave them an opportunity to experience the review process at Geneva. 

Through the UPROAR Website, participants were guided on how to leverage research and social media platforms online for effective design and branding as part of UPR engagements  related to digital rights. The workshop also entailed guidance on what stakeholder mapping is and its importance.

In a subsequent panel entitled ‘Stemming the Tide: Has the Universal Periodic Review Mechanism Contributed to Changes in the Digital Rights Landscape of States Under Review?’ panelists shared experiences from Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and many others. This gave the participants in the workshop an understanding on how to prepare for stakeholder engagements and how to conduct evidence-based advocacy at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

It was noted that the Covid-19 pandemic led to the imposition of travel restrictions which caused difficulties in traveling to Geneva to physically participate in the UPR process. Online opportunities were a welcome alternative but the lack of reliable internet access among civil society on the continent during the sessions presented an additional barrier

Beyond making submissions and engaging during review sessions, participants were urged to also take part in monitoring recommendations. Experiences were shared about governments such as that of Uganda which rejected all the recommendations that were given in regard to digital rights. In such instances participants were encouraged not to give up and draw back due to such government response but to keep doing the work of advocacy in line with digital rights since the same is also a notable step in the right direction. They were also encouraged to collaborate with law and policy members to ensure that they know about the UPR process and that they are able to positively respond to the recommendations given. They were also encouraged to ensure that there is in-country pressure from civil society to ensure that governments act on the recommendations given to them. It was noted that in Tanzania there has been a significant increase in the acceptance of recommendations after there has been collaboration between civil society and parliamentarians.  

The UPR sessions at FIFAfrica22 were very informative and intriguing as it engaged well-equipped workshop trainers. Experiences from those who had participated in Geneva engagements on digital rights stirred the urge for proactive engagement and participation by those coming up for review like Botswana.

Advancing Internet Freedom in Africa Through the Universal Periodic Review: Lessons and Gaps

By CIPESA Staff Writer |

Since its establishment in 2006, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) has provided a unique process for reviewing the human rights records of all United Nations (UN) Member States. Over the years, however, there has been limited participation by African civil society in the review process. In particular, there is limited work by African actors to promote internet freedom through this process.

Accordingly, since 2018, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Small Media Foundation and a coalition of regional partners have been working to support civil society organisations across Africa to engage with the UPR process through capacity development in research and advocacy. The project has made up to 16 UPR submissions on digital rights in Africa with a focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe

To further concretise CIPESA and Small Media’s efforts, a survey was commissioned to gauge the awareness, engagement and existing capacities of stakeholders in relation to the UPR process and their development needs with regard to UPR advocacy, campaigning, and research. Conducted between July 2019 and December 2021, the survey recorded a total of 134 respondents from all 16 countries on which CIPESA, Small Media and partners made UPR submissions focused on digital rights. The respondents included activists, academics, diplomats, lawyers, journalists, government officials, development actors, and civil society organisations. 

The survey found that there is limited participation by African civil society in the UPR process despite the review process providing a framework within which activists and human rights defenders can lobby and hold governments to account to promote internet freedom. The number of internet freedom-related submissions on Africa is still small though growing, which is a reflection of the low number of actors conducting internet freedom work and participating in UPR reviews. 

While there is a relatively high level of awareness of the existence of the UPR process, partly the result of training efforts by various organisations in recent years, the level of knowledge about the process is limited. Similarly, the level of participation in the review is moderate, with only 27% having taken part in national consultations and one in four having participated in submission of stakeholder reports. It is also noteworthy that even for those processes that many respondents had participated in, such as stakeholder submissions, those efforts were often led by entities based outside the continent. Only one third of respondents had ever received UPR-related capacity development.

The survey findings indicate the need for skills and knowledge development in UPR engagement including advocacy and follow-up on recommendations; making stakeholder submissions; and participating in national consultations and review sessions. Further, it is crucial to capacite legacy human rights organisations to embrace digital rights work. Other skills development needs identified included data collection; analysis and report writing to feed into submissions; stakeholder engagement; and diplomacy and international negotiations. 

Specifically on digital rights, skills building in understanding the legal and regulatory environment for the digital sector at national, regional and global levels, as well as coalition building strategies, and communications for advocacy, were identified. Other skills needed included digital security for human rights  defenders; knowledge of the full range of the UN Human Rights Mechanisms; and crafting human rights policy recommendations.

In line with the capacity gaps identified by the survey, CIPESA and Small Media convened CSOs, activists and human rights defenders from the 16 countries for a three days workshop on UPR advocacy and coalition building for digital rights. The workshop, which was held in Kampala, Uganda on March 20-22, 2022, featured sessions on local engagement and mobilisation, international and regional legal frameworks, researching digital rights and identifying policy issues, campaign and advocacy planning and impact communications, among others.  

Speaking at the opening of the workshop, CIPESA’s Programme Manager Ashnah Kalemera stated that the training sought to capacitate organisations to more effectively leverage the UPR for advancing digital rights. “Increasing African-based organisations’ participation in the UPR, national level uptake and follow up on recommendations by governments requires growing skills and engendering collaboration among stakeholders,” said Kalemera.

The workshop builds on CIPESA’s multi-country efforts in building skills and knowledge in collaborative internet policy research, research methods, communicating research, and data-driven advocacy, among others, towards a free, open and secure internet in Africa.

See the Internet Freedom and UPR in Africa Survey report here.

CIPESA, Small Media Make Stakeholder Submissions to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Digital Rights in South Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe

By Ashnah Kalemera |

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) together with Small Media last week made joint stakeholder submissions on digital rights in South Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The submissions were made as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism which is an assessment of a country’s human rights under the auspices of the Human Rights Council. Every United Nations (UN) member state has its human rights record assessed, and all UN member states are involved in the review process. It happens every four-and-a-half years, for every state.

The submissions urge the three countries to ensure that rights to freedom of expression, freedom of information, equal access and opportunity as well as data protection and privacy are protected both offline and online pursuant to constitutional guarantees, regional and international instruments. Based on developments since the three countries’ previous UPR back in November 2016, the submissions make recommendations to be considered during the upcoming third cycle of the UPR, tentatively scheduled for November 2021.

The South Sudan submission was made in partnership with Defy Hate Now and supported by eight institutions – Rise Initiative for Women’s Rights Advocacy (RiWA), Freedom of Expression Hub, Koneta hub, Okay Africa Foundation, Anataban Initiative, IamPeace, Internet Governance Forum (IGF) South Sudan and Information Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) Network.

The submission for Uganda was supported by Access Now, Freedom of Expression Hub, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Internet Society – Uganda Chapter and Pollicy.

Access Now, Paradigm Initiative, Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, Association for Progressive Communication (APC), Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, Zimbabwe Centre for Media and Information Literacy (ZCMIL), Media Alliance of Zimbabwe supported the Zimbabwe Submission.

Read the full submissions:

The three submissions bring to 14 the total number of UPR submissions made by CIPESA and Small Media on digital rights in Africa since 2018. Previous submissions made include: Ethiopia, the Gambia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania

Namibia and Sierra Leone’s Digital Rights Record to be Assessed at the 38th Session of the Universal Peer Review

By Edrine Wanyama |

Namibia and Sierra Leone are among the countries that will undergo their Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the upcoming 38th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council slated to take place in May 2021. The two countries have distinct human rights and governance track records, accompanied by  increasing digitalisation, making it important that the UPR recommendations for both states reflect the need for the protection of fundamental freedoms both online and offline.

Despite being coastal countries with direct connection to  submarine cables, internet penetration rates remain low – 36.8% in Namibia and 13.2 % in Sierra Leone. Namibia continues to suffer from high income inequality which exacerbates internet affordability and  service delivery. These factors contribute to its poor ranking at 84 out of the 100 countries assessed as part of  the 2020 Inclusive Internet Index on internet availability, affordability, relevance of content and readiness. For its part, Sierra Leone ranks at 57 out of 61 countries assessed by the Alliance for Affordable Internet on  internet affordability. Prevailing challenges include poor service delivery and reported  misappropriation of funds.

                See insights on digital access by our Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) Grantee, Global Voices

Out of the 218 recommendations made to Namibia by 88 countries in the second cycle of the UPR in 2016, only one reference was made to freedom of expression and the press. Understandably, it is the highest ranked African country  on the global press freedom index – 23rd in  2019 and 2020 out of 180 countries assessed. Namibian Courts have also been instrumental in upholding freedom of expression and other related rights as reflected in a judgment in which an appeal by the Namibia Central Intelligence Service (NCIS) that sought to stop the publication of an article about corruption was dismissed. Similarly, the Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that the collection of licensed operators’ turnover by the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia was unconstitutional since the Universal Service Fund which is provided for by Section 57 of the Communications Act, 2009 (Act No. 8 of 2009) was not operational yet.

Nonetheless, there are freedom of expression challenges in Namibia including government threats to media independence, harsh criticisms of the media, calls to gag social media under the guise of  fighting misinformation and cybercrime, and preferential treatment accorded to state-owned media. Further, there are reported cases of harassment, assault and threats against media practitioners such as the assault of two journalists by the President’s Security Unit during the opening of the Covid-19 isolation facility. During the elections in 2019, there were blatant attacks on media practitioners over alleged influence of elections, while the government warned citizens against bullying and irresponsible use of social media platforms, which purportedly endangers lives. The publication of false or misleading statements on Covid-19 was outlawed in April 2020 with a potential penalty of a fine of up to 2,000 Namibian Dollars (USD 134) or imprisonment of up to six months. Since the outlaw, various incidents of arrests and detention of citizens have been reported.

On access to information, Namibia’s proposed access to information bill contains wide ranging exemptions that could negatively impact on the exercise of digital rights and freedoms if passed into law. Some of the notable exemptions include information and records pertaining to national security, proceedings of the cabinet, confidentiality of judicial functions, and information in possession of some public bodies.

In comparison, at the second UPR cycle, Sierra Leone received 213 recommendations from 88 countries, of which  seven recommendations were on freedom of expression. Ranked at 85 on the global press freedom index, the country continues to grapple with press freedom as witnessed in the arrests and arbitrary detention of individuals over online expression on allegations of incitement and subversion, false news and defamation. Moreover, the recent Independent Media Commission (IMC) Act 2020 creates room for censorship of media by empowering the Independent Media Commission to shut down media houses on ambiguous grounds of “public interest”. In July 2019, the IMC threatened  to suspend 12 media houses for non-payment of fines.

Progressive developments in Sierra Leone have included the cabinet move to decriminalise defamation and libel by repealing Part V of the Public Order Act . However, there have been instances where freedom of expression online has been undermined. In March 2018, the internet was shut down on the general election day consequently denying party affiliates an opportunity to receive results from the National Electoral Commission, and citizens and the media the opportunity to engage freely at this critical time. This block to digital access to information was contrary to Sierra Leone’s Access to Information law, 2013 which provides for disclosure of information held by public authorities or by persons providing public services. Notwithstanding the 2013 law’s promotion of openness, there are wide ranging exemptions  under Part II. These include, among others, information related  to national security and defense, international relations, investigations and law enforcement, economic and commercial interests related information.

On data protection, both countries are yet to enact legislation, which has left citizens’ right to privacy and personal data at risk of abuse and misuse. Amidst reports of state sponsored surveillance and online violence against women, the draft bill in Namibia has been undergoing consultations since early 2020. Sierra Leone’s Cybersecurity Bill engenders aspects of privacy and data protection. However, it is yet to be passed by parliament.

As part of the upcoming UPR for both countries, it is important to fasttrack the protection of fundamental human rights and basic freedoms both online and offline against the national, regional, and international human rights obligations. Accordingly, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Small Media, together with civil society organisations made joint stakeholder submissions on digital rights in the two countries. The Sierra Leone submission was made in partnership with Campaign for Human Rights and Development International, Sierra Leone Reporters Union, Citizens Advocacy Network and the The Institute for Governance Reform while that for Namibia was in partnership with the Internet Society (ISOC) Namibia chapter.

The submissions among others recommend for the two countries to:

  • Repeal and or amend laws to remove erroneous restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information. Notably, for Namibia – Article 21(2) of the Constitution, the Protection of Information Act, 1982, and Section 4 of Central Intelligence Services Act, 1997; and for Sierra Leone – Independent Media Commission Act, 2020
  • Uphold privacy of the individual by among others, repealing section 9 of the Communications Act (Namibia), and enacting Cybercrime, Data Protection and Privacy legislation through participatory and consultative processes (both countries)
  • Operationalise the Universal Service Funds and continue efforts to promote equitable access and inclusion for minority, marginalised and underserved communities
  • Abstain from arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists, media workers and critics over the exercise of their right to freedom of expression online or offline.
  • Comply with the established regional and international human rights standards and obligations on freedom of expression and access to information online and offline.

Read the full submissions, Namibia and Sierra Leone.

Nigeria Fails to Guarantee Human Rights for Marginalised Groups

By Babatunde Okunoye and Ashnah Kalemera |

With a population of over 190 million, Nigeria is Africa’s largest telecommunications market, boasting more telephone and internet users than any other country on the continent. Over the past 20 years, the country has transitioned from a military regime to a relative democracy, albeit with human rights challenges,  especially for marginalised populations and increasingly, in the online sphere.

With an internet penetration of 27%, millions of Nigerians have flocked online to communicate and express themselves in ways not possible during the decades of military rule. The internet and social media have become effective vehicles for channelling citizens’ criticism of government, and have also enabled journalists to quickly report and disseminate stories on corruption and poor service delivery.

However, the vigorous online activity of Nigerians has been met with stiff resistance from the political elite. Although sections 38 and 39 of the Nigerian Constitution guarantee freedom of thought and expression, a number of laws restrict free speech. Among them is the 2015 Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevent) Act. Section 24 of this law which speaks to cyber-stalking is a major instrument for the prosecution of bloggers, journalists and critical voices online.

Similarly, sections 52 and 60 (chap. 7) of the Criminal Code provide that slander, libel and defamation are criminal offences punishable by imprisonment. Accusations of libel are used by state authorities against journalists and bloggers for critical or “negative” reporting. Meanwhile, although the Constitution guarantees the privacy of citizens’ correspondence, Nigeria has no specific legislation that protects data privacy of citizens offline and online.

As a United Nations (UN) member state, Nigeria underwent the third cycle human rights assessment under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism during the 31st session of the Human Rights Council in November 2018. In its national report, the Nigeria delegation noted the development of a Cyber Security Strategy with key components on data protection and privacy. It added that the country was in the process of finalising a national action plan on business and human rights “in response to the call by the United Nations to address the negative impact of business on human rights.”

During the session, Nigeria went on to receive a total of 290 recommendations regarding human rights protection at legal and institutional level. Whereas digital rights including the right to privacy and the right to freedom of opinion and expression online were not reflected in the recommendations made to Nigeria, five from Australia, Italy, Canada, Ireland and Chile relating to freedom of association, expression, and privacy are implicitly relevant to the online sphere. Nigeria also received up to 14 recommendations on equality and non-discrimination, with regards to women and sexual minorities, which are relevant to internet freedom.

These recommendations echoed those in previous reviews  that remained largely unimplemented, with the internet freedom landscape characterised by censorship, arbitrary detentions and arrests of journalists, bloggers and citizens for comments made online. Obtaining access to public information also remained a challenge, as did access and affordability to the internet. Read more about UPR and internet Freedom in Nigeria under cycle one and two and recommendations submitted  by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Small Media, and Paradigm Initiative

In March 2019, Nigeria went on to accept 240 of the 290 recommendations. It is reported that the Nigerian delegation stated that they did not support recommendations on rights of sexual minorities, on the grounds of being “against national values”. Provisions under section 4 of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act prohibit the “registration of gay clubs, societies and organisations” as well as “the public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly”. If found guilty, the penalty is 10 years imprisonment.

As internet freedom advocacy in Nigeria continues, including via the push to pass the revised Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, and implementation of the recommendations from the 31st session of the Human Rights Council in preparation for Nigeria’s next UPR in November 2023, it is imperative that efforts emphasise the need for freedom of opinion, expression, association and assembly, online and offline, to be realised for all segments of society – including religious, ethnic and sexual minorities.