Leveraging the Digital Space to Combat Human Trafficking in DR Congo, The Gambia and Mauritania

By Ashnah Kalemera and Simone Toussi | 

The growth in usage of digital technologies in Africa is fuelling technology-enabled human trafficking activities in the region. But these very technologies can be leveraged to fight the vice that is sweeping across the continent..

With support from the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF), the African Legal Think Tank on Women’s Rights (ALTOWR) has studied the role of the internet in fuelling human trafficking, including online recruitment and advertisement in Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), The Gambia and Mauritania. Besides the results being enlightening, the project has produced a curriculum for skills and knowledge building on how the internet can be used to fuel or to combat human trafficking.

According to the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, many African countries experience diverse forms of human trafficking. In 2020, for every 10 victims of trafficking, five were adult women and two were girls. DR Congo, The Gambia and Mauritania  are among the countries on the continent where the vice is rife. 

The Global Slavery Index, which measures where modern slavery (forced labour, human trafficking and forced marriages) occurs and how governments are responding, ranked the three countries 12th, 58th and 6th respectively, out of 167 globally. With national internet penetration rates of 19.2% in DR Congo, 63% in Mauritania and 19% in The Gambia, human trafficking networks in these countries are increasing relying on the internet and social media platforms to recruit victims.

In the DR Congo, there are over one million estimated victims, with most trafficking involving “forced labour in artisanal mining sites, agriculture, domestic servitude, or armed groups recruiting children in combat and support roles, as well as sex trafficking.” 

Indeed, ALTOWR’s study found that population displacement due to the conflict in the DR Congo had created a favourable environment for exploitation of vulnerable communities. The study details cases of sexual slavery and forced marriages in the country’s capital Kinshasa, as well as in neighbouring Rwanda; illegal migration to South Africa via Burundi and Tanzania; and abductions, resulting in sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/ AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, and hefty ransom payments. In all case studies, the perpetrators used social media platforms including Facebook and Whatsapp to lure victims. 

Read more: Le Rôle de l’internet dans la Croissance de la Traite des Etres Humains en République Démocratique du Congo

In The Gambia, an estimated 11,000 individuals are victims of modern slavery, out of a total population of just under two million. Gambian women, girls and to some extent boys are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour fuelled by the country’s thriving tourism sector. 

Gambia’s law against human trafficking was passed in 2007 and the country established the National Agency Against Trafficking in Persons, whose operations commenced in 2013 but are restricted by limited resources. As such, According to the ALTOWR study, efforts to prosecute perpetrators of human trafficking are “minimal.” Among the cases investigated, particularly for Gambians trafficked to the Middle East, travel logistics are arranged online.

Read more: The Role of the Internet in Fueling the Growth of Human Trafficking in The Gambia 

Meanwhile, despite reforms against trafficking and smuggling of persons in Mauritania, modern slavery “is entrenched in society with slave status being inherited and deeply rooted in social castes and wider social system” in the country where there are an estimated 90,000 victims, out of a population of four million. Located between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, with a long and porous border, Mauritania is a transit route for smugglers and traffickers between Africa, Europe and the Middle East. 

Read more: Le Rôle de l’internet dans la Croissance de la Traite des Etres Humains en Mauritanie

In Africa, human traffickers use the Internet to identify, recruit, coerce and control victims as well as to  advertise the services or products resulting from their exploitation. They also use it to launder the illicit revenue earned from their activities. Migrant smugglers use the Internet for similar purposes. Online African Organized Crime from Surface to Darkweb, 2020

The studies recommend that government, civil society and other stakeholders in the three countries leverage online platforms for prevention and protection campaigns as well as outreach, including on risks, avenues for reporting and access to support services (psychosocial, mental, physical and legal including referrals). On prosecution, recommendations include the need for skills and knowledge building for enforcement authorities to understand human trafficking via the internet. The studies also recommend leveraging technology for witness protection during criminal proceedings and the enactment of specific legislation on online sex crimes and cyber trafficking. 

The findings and recommendations of the studies fed into the development of country-specific curriculums that informed three in-country trainings targeted at survivors and networks working to combat human trafficking. The  aim was to equip them with tools to influence prevention and protection strategies. The trainings reached a total of 63 beneficiaries including youth groups, women’s rights organisations, and civil society organisations, and were preceded by a Trainings of Trainers (ToT) in each country. 

The discussions at the trainings fed into two regional roundtables [French and English] which explored ways to improve and implement the existing legal frameworks, strengthen border controls, and multi-stakeholder efforts to eradicate socio-cultural constraints and practices that undermine victims’ rights. Representatives in the roundtables were drawn from the African Union, the North-South Center Council of Europe, the Counter Trafficking Unit of the International Organization for Migration, alongside several think-tanks, networks, and civil society organisations. 

The engagements resulted in the establishment of country task forces to support the development of collaborative action plans that leverage the internet to push back against human trafficking. The study results will continue to inform the work by ALTOWR and CIPESA in understanding how digital technologies can best be leveraged to combat human trafficking in Africa.

Zimbabwe Becomes the Latest Country to Shut Down Social Media

By Juliet Nanfuka |
Less than a week after the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council declared that online rights must be protected and condemned disruptions to internet access, citizens in Zimbabwe became the latest victims of online communications shut down. Authorities in Zimbabwe shut down communications in the wake of protests against rampant corruption and misuse of state funds by Robert Mugabe’s regime, which has been in power since 1980.
Online campaigns initiated by frustrated Zimbabweans using hashtags like #MugabeMustFall and #ThisFlag have gained widespread popularity over the past weeks with the most recent #ZimbabweShutdown and #ZimShutdown2016 gaining momentum while calling for citizens to stay away from work. On Wednesday July 6, many streets in the capital Harare stood empty as the stay-in protest took effect, while online, despite the blockage of the popular instant messaging platform Whatsapp, citizens continued voicing concerns and sharing messages of solidarity. Service providers such as TelOnem, Liquid Telecom Zimbabwe, ZOL Zimbabwe, Telecel and Econet were amongst those who were reportedly pressured into shutting down access, which caused users to turn to circumvention tools in order to bypass the blockage.

A notice issued by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) stated that those who engaged in “irresponsible use of social media and telecommunications services” would be “arrested and dealt with accordingly in the national interest.”
Zimbabwe, which is ranked “partly free” by Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report, has also over the years recorded dismal media freedom and digital rights records, including crackdown on critics and news outlets both online and offline. In April 2016, a senior government official said the country could take measures similar to China by entirely blocking access to certain content online.
In July 2014, an anonymous whistle-blower Facebook page, “Baba Jukwa”, was deleted under unclear circumstances following the arrest of a journalist for allegedly running the page. A bounty of US$300,000 had earlier reportedly been offered for revealing the name of the person behind the account, while  in January 2014, a Facebook user was arrested and charged for sharing a post alleging that the president had died. These actions have cultivated a culture of self-censorship among the Zimbabwean online community.
The UN resolution, which was passed on Wednesday July 1 by 70 states, stresses that human rights enjoyed offline, particularly with regards to freedom of expression, must be protected online pursuant to articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Countries that voted against the resolution included Bolivia, Bangladesh, Burundi, Cuba, China, Russia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, the Republic of Congo, Kenya, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela and Vietnam. Some countries including Algeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan and Togo chose to abstain from voting on the resolution.
The Zimbabwe government’s stance on the use of social media comes as no surprise as an increasing number of shutdowns have been documented in African countries in recent months.
*Whatsapp was restored after four hours of disruption

Is Tanzania Becoming an Internet Freedom Predator?

By Juliet Nanfuka |
Tanzania appears to be steadily sliding into a predator of critical social media users, as state authorities continue to arrest and prosecute users for expressing what many see as legitimate opinions. In recent months, the country’s newly elected government has used  a controversial new law  to prosecute at least seven social media users, in spite of  constitutional guarantees of free speech.
Tanzanian netizens are falling foul of the Cybercrimes Act enacted last year, whose stated goal is “criminalizing offences related to computer systems and Information Communication Technologies”. The law has been used to charge citizens for “publication of false information” in accordance with Section 16 of the Act. It states: “Any person who publishes information or data, presented in a picture, text, symbol or any other form in a computer system knowing that such information or data is false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate and with intent to defame, threaten, abuse, insult or otherwise deceive or mislead the public or councelling the commission of an offence, commits an offence, and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not less than five million shillings or to imprisonment for a term not less than three years or to both.“
On April 15, 2016 Isaac Habakuk Emily was appeared in court for the publication of false information using a computer system – in this instance Facebook. In a post, Emily referred to President Pombe Magufuli as an imbecile that could not be compared to the country’s founding leader, Julius Nyerere.  He appeared in court for insulting the president after his post was reported to the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA).
See report on State of Internet Freedom in Tanzania 2015
Since the Cybercrimes Act took effect last September, Tanzanian social media users have “gone a little quiet”, according to journalist Joseph Warungu. And for good reason, as Emily is not the first individual against whom the law has been used. In October 2015, Benedict Angelo Ngonyani was charged for “spreading misleading information” after he posted on Facebook that Tanzania’s Chief of Defence Forces, General Davis Mwamunyange, had been hospitalised following food poisoning. In the same month, Sospiter Jonas was charged for posting to Facebook content stating that Tanzanian Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda “will only become a gospel preacher.” The following month, four staff of an opposition party were charged for publishing “inaccurate” election results on Facebook and Twitter.
The stated objective of the Cybercrimes Act was to fight rising incidents of cybercrime such as bank fraud, mobile money theft, phishing attacks, website hacking and spoofing. However, even as it was being debated, human rights defenders warned that the government would use the law to suppress critical voices. As one activist stated, “We usually use various internet platforms to communicate our information—Twitter, Facebook, blogs, SMS, WhatsApp, etc. The use of all these forms will be rendered useless by the Act which in part criminalises transmission of any information deemed misleading, defamatory, false or inaccurate by the government.”
The Cybercrimes Act was reportedly passed in the middle of the night and has been criticised for disregarding press freedom and freedom of expression, granting excessive powers to police, and offering limited protections to ordinary citizens.
Clamping down on social media users is a trend that has been increasingly witnessed in East Africa and beyond.  In Kenya, Section 29 of the Kenya Information and Communications Act (2013) has been used to charge up to 10 social media users for “the improper use of a telecommunication system” in 2016 alone. In Uganda, Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act bears similar language and states, “Any person who willfully and repeatedly uses electronic communication to disturb or attempts to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication whether or not a conversation ensues commits a misdemeanor.” In the lead up to the February 2016 general elections, a series of arrest were made which saw social media users charged using this law.
Further afield, South Africa’s Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill (2014) also bears similar vague clauses that muzzle opinion of the media, bloggers and other independent actors that promote freedom of expression and increased state transparency. In Nigeria, the Frivolous Petitions Bill (2015), popularly known as the Social Media Bill, threatens to muzzle public expression online.
The Cybercrimes Act is one of several laws Tanzania  enacted in the lead up to the October 2015 general elections despite public outcry that these laws granted excessive powers to the police criminalised  expression and access to information, and did not provide clear legal recourse to citizens.
As affronts to citizens’ online rights in Tanzania and other countries continue, self-censorship is likely to prevail which in turn would have a negative impact on citizen participation, transparency and accountability in governance.
NB: Section 16 of the Cybercrimes Act 2015 has been adjusted to reflect the fine of not less than five million shillings or to imprisonment for a term not less than three years or to both.