The State of Internet Freedom in Africa

SHARE   |   Tuesday, 23 October 2018   |   By Dr Letshwiti B.tutwane
The State of Internet Freedom in Africa

A few weeks back I was invited to Accra, Ghana by a regional organisation that deals with issues of the internet and ICT in Africa.

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) based in Uganda, together with the Media Foundation for West Africa were holding the Forum on Internet freedom in Africa. At that gathering they launched the 2018 ‘State of Internet Freedom in Africa: Privacy and Data Protection in the Digital Era: Challenges and Trends in Africa’. This report is a survey of 13 African countries: Burundi, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Surely by features of the sample it is not representative enough as it leaves out much of Francophone Africa and the Maghreb as well as Lusophone Africa. However, when one reads it ideologically what confronts one is the Africa we all know: the land of authoritarian leadership where freedom of expression is not a valued right.

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Although only 54 pages long, the report is loaded with useful information that can help researchers, students and policy makers. It is well referenced and information was gathered mainly through qualitative interviews and literature review. One of the findings that stand out is the poor internet penetration on the continent. Were it not for high mobile phone penetration which stood at 78% in 2017, most Africans would be locked out of the internet. However Kenya has an impressive 85% internet penetration, followed by Senegal with almost 60%. Closer home Zimbabwe has just over 50%. Burundi has less than 1% whilst   Nigeria has 53%. Interestingly when it comes to mobile money subscription, Nigeria has only 2 million (1.2 % of mobile phone subscribers) users out of a population of over 180 million people. This suggests fear of fraud and online deceit but the study does not offer any explanation. Rwanda leads the pack in this area of mobile money, with a 92.4% uptake of the service. Second is Zimbabwe with 68%. This is not surprising, given that with the country dependent for many years on remittances from their people in the diaspora, they would need mobile phone services to distribute it. But there could be other reasons. Kenya, famous for the m-pesa mobile money transfer service is third at almost 66%. This a country to watch for technological advancement, hence the visit by Facebook founder Mark Zuckeberck  a few months back, having been there before in 2016.

As pertains to internet freedom, most countries surveyed harass their people and interfere with freedom despite an international legislative framework the countries have pledged themselves to. In Kenya the reports notes President Kenyatta’s government’s unlawful and disproportionate surveillance, as well as access to and interception of content and data without court warrants. This is done by his security agents. Social media is reportedly monitored via the services of an Israeli company called WebintPro. A mobile service provider Safaricom was also allegedly spied on using á middle-box’. On the other hand bloggers and internet users were reported to be repeatedly assaulted and intimidated.

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Not to be outdone, in neighbouring Uganda President Museveni’s government is accused of illegal surveillance of citizens’ communications. Government there is notorious for hostility towards online critics and opposition politicians and there were allegations that FinFisher intrusion malware was planted hotel Wi-Fi to snoop on communication of critics. Acts of parliament, the Regulation of Interception of Communication Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act give government agencies broad surveillance powers.  Above all president Museveni’s government introduced a daily tax of UGX200 (about 5 US cents) for social media usage aimed at addressing gossip and lies, in the words of the president. This may seem like a small amount but in a poor country with a GDP per capita of about $604 that’s a lot. It is as good as a shutdown.

Another neighbour, Tanzania, under president Magufuli is also sensitive to digital criticism and has at its disposal laws such as the Cybercrimes Act 2015 and the Media Services Act 2016. Critical newspapers have been closed. Like Uganda, Tanzania has also introduced new regulations that require online content creators to pay application fees of TZS100 000 (about $44) and subsequent renewal fees of the same amount. The penalty for non-compliance is TZS5 000 000 (about $2200). One needs to disclose ownership details to obtain a licence.

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Nearby in DRC internet shutdowns or restrictions to online access are normal. They are justified on grounds of public order and national security. Radio and television stations deemed to be government critics such as Nyota TV and Radio Television Mapendo were closed down in 2016, whilst others were closed in 2014.

In Malawi, former American law professor President Peter Mutharika implemented the controversial Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS), otherwise known as the spy machine in September 2017. Civil society tried to challenge it in court but lost. Government argued that it was meant to help the digital media regulator to update the quality of service of mobile phone operators, revenue assurance, as well as fraud and spectrum management. Malawians prefer self-censorship instead of criticising government on social media. In the past online critics, including opposition members were once arrested based on a private WhatsaApp chat. They were accused of scheming to unseat the president. Burundi is no different. President Nkurunziza brooks no opposition to his rule. Online persecution is normal. In May 2018 what CIPESA calls án obnoxious law’ was enacted, giving security agencies enormous power to seize computer data in real time and conduct surveillance. Citizens communication can be intercepted with little judicial intervention. In any case you can’t expect the judiciary in such a political climate to be independent.

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The breath of fresh air in the report is provided by Ghana and Senegal which can give Botswana a serious run for her money. Botswana is still regarded as a miracle African success story in academic literature but Ghana, Senegal, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Seychelles and others are increasingly displacing her. ‘Ghana’s strong democratic credentials continue to ensure political stability’, notes the CIPESA report. The media enjoys a relatively high degree of freedom. Despite this government agencies have on occasion harassed and arrested journalists.

Senegal, the only West African country without the history of military coups, is also lauded in the report for ‘’vibrant democracy with a tradition of stable government’. It boasts of a generally diverse and unrestricted media. It appears to be in good hands under President Macky Sall who came to power in 2012.

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It would be unfair to leave out Ethiopia which appears to be on its way to democratic reform under new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. He lifted the State of emergency and unblocked hundreds of websites and TV channels. He has also announced measures to liberalise the telecommunications sector and dropped charges against opposition leaders, bloggers and activists. He has also reconnected mobile and broadband internet services that had been cut off 2 years ago. Similarly he unblocked 246 websites, blogs and news sites that were blocked 10 years ago.

The irony of the misbehaviour of African leaders that I have discussed above is that they have signed international protocols and conventions that promote privacy and freedom of expression. At international level these include the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. At regional level, the African Union in its Constitutive Act commits itself to promoting human and people’s rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. In 2014 the AU adopted the Malabo Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection. It was the first Pan African instrument on privacy and personal data protection. Article 8 of the Convention calls upon members to establish a legal framework to strengthen fundamental rights and freedoms, particularly the protection of physical data and punish any violation of privacy without prejudice to the principle of free flow of personal data. It also outlines internationally recognised principles of data collection, storage and processing. However, since its adoption in 2014, of the 55 member states only 10 have signed it and Botswana is not one of them! And only Mauritius and Senegal have ratified it. It however needs 15 ratifications to take effect.

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In East Africa, the East African Community in 2008 developed a model cyber law Act to guide its members to develop laws that protect personal data. In 2010 ECOWAS adopted the Supplementary Act Personal data Protection Within ECOWAS urging member states to establish a legal framework for protection of privacy of data relating to the collection, processing, transmission, storage and use of personal data.

As for SADC, in 2012 ICT ministers adopted a model law on data protection to assist members to prevent the violation of privacy. It’s generally a good law that amongst others provides for an independent data protection authority, rules on the processing of data, promotes data security, transparency and accountability.

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These beautiful agreements and conventions mean nothing if the leaders do not walk the talk. Unfortunately as the study notes, most citizens in the surveyed countries are ignorant about their rights and the leaders are having a field day compromising their privacy. Civil society needs to stand up and Members of Parliament should address technical issues like this instead of the usual banal talk about trivia.



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