CIPESA and OpenNet Africa Join Public Call Against  Internet Shutdown in Zimbabwe

By Juliet Nanfuka |
Zimbabwe has experienced a shutdown of social media platforms and major websites as of January 15, 2019 following public protests against a 150% increase in fuel prices. The protests have resulted in the death of at least eight people and arrest of up to 200 others. The disruptions to online communications were reported on social media and also confirmed by network measurements conducted by Netblocks.

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and its internet freedoms initiative OpenNet Africa have joined over 20 civil society organisations in calling for the restoration of internet access in the country. A letter sent to Kazembe Kazembe, the Minister of Information Communication Technology and Cyber Security, implores the government to “ensure the stability and openness of the internet in Zimbabwe.” The letter was delivered as part of the #KeepItOn coalition, which represents more than 175 organisations in 60 countries.
As at time of writing, no statement on the shut down had been released by the government, telecommunications companies, or the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ).
The shutdown is doing little to alleviate the economic crisis in Zimbabwe. Projections show that the country can lose at least USD 5.7 million per day in direct economic costs, according to estimates using the COST tool by NetBlocks and the Internet Society. The tool references a framework for calculating the economic impact of shutdowns developed by CIPESA.
Further, the economic impact of the shutdown is likely to persist far beyond the days in which access is disrupted due to systemic effects which harm efficiency throughout the economy. Internet shutdowns, however short-lived, undermine economic growth, and erode business confidence as global and national perceptions on the offending country are also affected.
The joint letter notes that the UN Human Rights Committee, the official interpreter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), emphasises in General Comment no. 34 that restrictions on speech online must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose.  Shutdowns, by contrast, disproportionately impact all users, and unnecessarily restrict access to information and emergency services during crucial moments. Shutdowns are neither necessary to, nor effective at, achieving a legitimate aim, as they often spread confusion and encourage more people to join public demonstrations.
CIPESA research recommends that governments should desist from ordering shutdowns because they have a high economic impact at micro and macro levels, adversely affecting the livelihoods of citizens, undermining the profitability of business enterprises, and reducing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and competitiveness of countries that implement them. This is also why CIPESA is part of the global campaign #ForTheWeb aimed to get governments, companies and the public to stand up for a  free, open and fair web that works for everyone, everywhere.
See the joint letter here.

Strategic Litigation as an Answer to Preventing Internet Shutdowns?

By Kuda Hove |
Zimbabwean lawyer and activist Kuda Hove reflects on a workshop he attended on strategic digital rights litigation hosted by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and Media Legal Defence Initiative as well as on various discussions from the  recently concluded Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa.
The Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2017 (FIFAfrica17) was a great platform to learn more about the issues plaguing the African Internet space. The event was also a  platform to interact with some of Africa’s sharpest Internet activists and explore opportunities for collaborative interventions for advancing internet freedom on the continent.
From the Strategic Digital Rights Litigation training workshop, I learned how litigation can serve as a tool to promote and protect online rights in various African jurisdictions. It was also in this workshop that I learnt about the role of African Regional Courts in internet and information rights related matters which are referred to them by African nationals, as evinced by the case of Lohé Issa Konaté v. The Republic of Burkina Faso in which the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press were upheld.
I come from Zimbabwe where referral of cases to regional courts such as the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights is rare. In the past, Zimbabweans have successfully referred a land matter to the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Tribunal. However, the government of Zimbabwe ignored the SADC Tribunal ruling and pushed for changes to be made to the SADC Tribunal. As a result, it is no longer possible for private SADC citizens to directly report State sponsored human rights violations to the SADC Tribunal. It was therefore, interesting to interact with session facilitators and participants who were conversant in the procedure involved in approaching other African regional and supranational courts.
The various discussions on Internet shutdowns in Africa were of interest to me especially when the Forum’s keynote speaker Rebecca Enonchong, described her experience during Cameroon’s 93 day internet shutdown which took place between January and April 2017. She said the deliberate shutdown of the Internet in English speaking parts of Cameroon led to a rise in “Internet refugees.” That is, individuals who travelled from parts of Cameroon without the Internet to other parts of the country where Internet was available for the purpose of accessing social media messages, emails and other Internet based communications.
The concept of Internet refugees reminded me of the experience of some of the rural populations in Zimbabwe. We might not have experienced internet shutdowns, but access to the Internet in areas outside of main cities and towns remains problematic, largely due to lack of infrastructure. Access to the Internet is still directly affected by factors such as access to electricity, sparsely populated cellphone towers, and lack of any substantial fixed line networks in rural areas. These infrastructure inadequacies contribute to the growth in the digital divide between urban and rural populations. Residents in rural areas are left with no choice, but to travel from their homes to the nearest clinic, growth point, or other business centre for the sole purpose of accessing mobile networks which allow them to communicate over the Internet. Given that rural women are seized with domestic roles, it is usually men who are able to travel to these areas with mobile network access, thus contributing to a gender divide when it comes to the use of ICT based communications in rural areas.
The panel discussion on the impact of Internet shutdowns raised a number of thought-provoking points and questions. For example, how do activists convince governments not to shut down the internet in their respective countries? Would an economic argument based on the negative economic impact Internet shutdowns have on national economies be effective? Or is it more effective to argue against Internet shutdowns from a human rights perspective which highlights the fact that the United Nations has recognised access to the Internet as a human right that must be protected? Despite both these arguments, the trend of internet shutdowns initiated by African governments continues to grow, which indicates that they do not care about economic loss resulting from Internet shutdowns, and the same governments have also shown a culture of impunity in respect for human rights.
I walked away from #FIFAfrica17 pondering how successful strategic litigation against an African government which has shut down the internet might be. In my mind, this would be an attention-grabbing test case which just might be a solution and deterrent to errant African governments. Such a case would be argued before a court such as the African Court of Human and Peoples Rights. The legal basis for this challenge would be that the government in question has violated its citizens’ fundamental rights such as the right to access to information, right to freedom of expression, and the right to freedom of assembly. These rights all enjoy protection under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and their violation is a violation of this continental instrument. Furthermore, private sector players can even act as amici curiae and provide proof of the economic prejudice they have suffered as a direct result of being cut off from the Internet. Time will tell whether such strategic litigation will prove effective in the fight against Internet shutdowns in Africa.

Zimbabwe’s Digital Activism Amidst Disproportionate Government Control of the Internet

By Juliet Nanfuka |
In 2016, activism in Zimbabwe took on a new persona through various social media campaigns that also transformed into offline activity.  In a move which critics believe is intended to suppress activism on social media, the national telecoms regulator known as the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) recently drove up internet access prices by up to 500% but following online uproar, the information ministry moved to reverse the decision.
As at the third quarter of 2016, Internet penetration in Zimbabwe stood at 50%. However, increased online use is threatened by a state keen to control online narrative similar to how it has controlled traditional media. Intimidation and arrests are likely to hurt internet freedom in a country where citizens are increasingly using online platforms to criticise the political and economic malaise in the southern African state.
Like many other African countries, internet access remains costly in Zimbabwe. The presence of a Universal Access Fund (USF) meant to reduce internet access costs and fund infrastructure across the county has not helped matters. POTRAZ manages the USF and has been criticised for under-utilising the fund and lacking transparency about its expenditures.
Increased  access at lower cost  has  partly been enabled by  service providers  offering mobile internet data bundles accompanied with subsidised or “zero rated” access to social media applications such as Whatsapp and Facebook.  However, in August 2016, at least three service providers  discontinued various promotions  following a directive from POTRAZ .  The directive was issued shortly after the regulator warned against increasing “abuse” of social media.

“Government is literally, deliberately or accidentally, suffocating the digital revolution by cutting off the lifeblood of the revolution, which is affordable digital and social media access to give citizens an alternative voice.”

TechZim News Blog

According to the 2016 State of Internet Freedom in Zimbabwe report, recent activities by state agencies have breached citizens’ rights guaranteed by the constitution. Proposed laws such as the Data Protection Bill and the Electronic Transaction and Electronic Commerce Bill could further undermine citizens’ rights to free expression and privacy. In addition, the draft Computer Crime and Cybercrime Bill provides for mass surveillance of citizen communications.

In the absence of a cyber law, the Criminal Law and Codification Act (CODE), popularly known as the “insult law”, has been the government’s weapon of choice against critics both online and offline. The law was widely used during the protests in 2016 to invoke harassment and arrest of “trouble-makers”, namely those who oppose or criticise President Mugabe.
Extracted from State of Internet Freedom in Zimbabwe | 2016 report

The report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) narrates cases of Zimbabweans arraigned before the courts over their online activities. Among the stated trumped-up charges are “criminal nuisance“, “insulting and undermining the president’s authority” and issuance of “treasonous” communiqué criticising Mugabe’s leadership.
Section 61 of the Zimbabwe Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression: “Every person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes … freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information.” While Zimbabwe has no specific law related to internet rights, the constitution also provides for access to information and privacy without explicitly mentioning the online domain.

Africa At Internet Freedom And Citizen Rights Cross Roads

By Thomas Sithole (@thomysithole)|
The Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2016 (FIFAfrica16) was my first time to attend and participate in a continental event on internet freedom. I have previously attended a number of workshops and conferences on internet freedom in my home country Zimbabwe.
Whereas these national level dialogues were useful in terms of making me appreciate the challenges we are facing as a country with regards to issues of freedom of expression, access to and dissemination of information, and other digital rights, they did not really empower me on the same issues as they are bedevilling our region and continent.
FIFAfrica16 made me realise that Africa is facing a host of challenges in so far as freedom of expression, access to and dissemination of information, freedom of the media, civic space and voice are concerned. The conversations at the Forum were strategic, rich and deep with regards to the subject at hand. The networking itself was, just like the space itself, very empowering!
What is more exciting is that this Forum coincided with the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). A Day that is set aside to celebrate this very important right to information as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to which many African countries are signatories yet sadly, and regrettably, most seem not to uphold this very important right for enjoyment by all citizens.
Many African governments, and indeed some in the global South, have gone out of their way to suppress this right and a gamut of others that empower citizens to have a voice and to express themselves freely without fear of being harassed, arrested, and in some instances killed.
It is thus befitting that FIFAfrica16 was a reminder to all of us, physical participants and those who were following proceedings through various online platforms, of the need not only to celebrate this right and other related rights, but to ensure that we don’t rest until all citizens enjoy it.
It is very unfortunate and indeed regrettable that despite its immense potential, the internet has not fully enabled some Africans the enjoyment of freedom of expression, and access to and dissemination of information, among other rights, that are enjoyed by their counterparts in more developed countries.
Governments, especially those that are authoritarian, autocratic and dictatorial have taken strides to limit civic space and voice online through draconian, archaic, retrogressive and repressive pieces of legislation all in the name of national security. One wonders though, how do states or governments become secure by shrinking citizen space and muffling citizen voices?
Internet shut downs are becoming more prevalent and ubiquitous in these authoritarian regimes before, during and sometimes after events like elections, referenda, census, citizen protests, and the list goes on.
As if shut downs on their own aren’t enough, members of the opposition, those in independent media and ordinary citizens whose voices are deemed critical to the establishment face arrests, intimidation, torture and in some instances death, all in the name of state security, public nuisance, insulting the powers that be and so forth.
Yet these shut downs come with heavy costs on the part of governments themselves, business and ultimately the citizens.
In addition to the draconian pieces of legislation that are used to limit citizen space and voice and other liberties online, our societies need to dismantle ugly patriarchal norms, values and cultural practices that have for centuries been used to oppress women and subject them to second class citizen status. Offline, women are still subjected to bullying, intimidation and various forms of dehumanising behaviours.
It is unfortunate that these practices have been transferred online. This kind of behaviour has no space in any progressive and democratic society. Marginalisation of women should be nipped in the bud and perpetrators should be identified and be brought to book in order to ensure that all citizens freely enjoy the internet and digital rights without discrimination.
It is clear that there is need for a multi-stakeholder approach towards resolving these growing challenges to internet freedom. Efforts should be made to demystify fears some governments have over use of technology and the need to strike a balance between citizens’ rights and national security.
Governments need to appreciate that rights to free speech and access to information are fundamental rights enshrined in the HDHR, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights as well as in their own respective constitutions. It cannot be business as usual when these rights are given with one hand and taken away by another.
Therefore, all retrogressive and draconian national pieces of legislation need to be repealed and revised in line with international standards, conventions, national constitutions and best practice.
Laws to do with use of technology must be drafted in consultation with all stakeholders including citizens, civil society organisations, media, private sector and other interests groups to ensure that they ensure the safety and security of citizens, whilst upholding rights but also embracing the benefits of various online tools and platforms.
This article was first published at Plumtree Development Trust on October 10, 2016.

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