The deteriorating state of internet freedom in Africa

August 31, 2016 • Social Media

With the progress of internet coverage, Africa seems to be slipping into a deeper state of social media and internet censorship. Just recently, the Ethiopian government shut down social media outlets during school exam time, not to distract students.

“It’s blocked. It’s a temporary measure until Wednesday. Social media have proven to be a distraction for students,” government spokesman Getachew Reda told AFP.

Uganda blocked social media during its national elections back in February this year. The country also said that the shutdown was for security purposes. Access Now, an organisation that defends internet freedoms, estimated the cost of the shut down to the millions of dollars.

“Internet shutdowns do not restore order, protect rights, or keep people safe. They also come at a significant financial cost. Our conservative estimate for the last shutdown in Uganda comes in at around USD$25 million lost per day for e-banking services alone,” the organisation wrote in its report.

In a 2015 survey, State of Internet Freedom in East Africa 2015 [PDF] by CIPESA gave a damning report of the East African states and their incidences of preventing internet freedom.

“In Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi, hate speech content regulations pose a threat to internet freedom. Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission formed in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 post-election violence, which was partly fuelled via ICT tools (notably by SMS) remains at the forefront of bringing social media ‘abusers’ to prosecution,” the report said.

It continued that: “Meanwhile, although findings indicate that there are high perceptions that surveillance is taking place in the region, the extent of surveillance is not known. But even without evidence, these perceptions have created fear within the region, with a large number of citizens practicing self-censorship, or choosing to remain silent in online platforms for fear of reprisals.”

CIPESA urged governments to relent on their crackdown on social media and internet use and have a more engaging tone with telcos and other internet players.

To legislate or not to

Given that social media becomes an avenue to spread news, rumours and unconfirmed reports, however, one might feel that the governments have a cause to block social media.

A country like Kenya has been struggling with the issue of rogue bloggers who spread hate and skewed political ideology. Many bloggers have been arrested over the years but still the laws are not enough to govern the internet sphere from a preventive point of view.

Currently, a bill that aims to regulate those practicing in the ICT arena has caused uproar in Kenya. The bill termed, ICT Practitioners Bill [PDF] sought to license ICT practitioners has resulted in a petition against the legislation.

According to the bill, an ICT practitioners’ body will be set up to regulate and license all ICT personnel in the country.

The bill describes an ICT practitioner as someone who has a bachelor’s degree in ICT or related field from a recognised university, and satisfies the ICT council that he or she is a person of good standing. The ICT practitioner will be required to pay an annual fee of US$50 to be allowed to practice his or her trade.

The Information, Communication and Technology ministry has distanced itself from the bill and said it was a privately sponsored bill. Critics said that the bill would prevent the youths who are tech savvy from achieving their potential since most of them are self taught.

Nanjira Sambuli, an ICT analyst, encouraged ICT practitioners to join other well established bodies to gain a voice to fight against internet crackdowns.

Kenya has bodies such as the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE), ICT Association of Kenya (ICTAK) – where it is said the bill originated – Technology Service Providers of Kenya (TESPOK) and Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet).

“Established entities like the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) and the Technology Service Providers of Kenya (TESPOK) have mechanisms to convey and submit their positions. However, a vast majority of practitioners probably aren’t members of those organisations,” Sambuli explained in an opinion piece.

She added that, “Many people have been learning the workings of policy and legislation as we march on, yet that has not been a deterrent to speaking up and speaking out on the incompatibility of the Bill to the praxis and even theories of ICT’s role in modern society.”

Kenya has been here before. In 2014, the President signed the Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014, legislation that was duly condemned by the people and was considered unlawful by the courts.

Among other things the bill had given the Director General of the National Intelligence Service the power to intercept and monitor communications at his own behest without needing a court warrant.

This comes despite Kenya having a clear chapter on the bill of rights that gives every citizen rights to privacy; protection against infringement of an individual’s communication; to access to information, freedom of expression and to freedom of media.

Technology cannot be stopped. With the increase of telecommunication outlets such as chat apps and social media platforms it only means that information will be streamed at lightening speeds. Any regulation or censorship of such outlets would send a country back to the Stone Age and fundamentally stifle progress.

Governments are right to muzzle hate speech and defamation on different levels but this will need more training and expertise in the face of so many evolving platforms. Blanket public censorship simply will not work in this day and age.

Even with blocking of social media sites and other internet outlets, a savvy population will always find a way to get back their voice. In Uganda for example, there were over a million downloads of VPN services that circumvented the censorship. This means African governments need to find another more acceptable way to show leadership.

By Vincent Matinde

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