African online civic space threatened

25 March 2021 | Story Ambre Nicolson. Photo Christian Santizo, Unsplash. Read time 6 min.

A new study from the African Digital Network, whose members include 30 in-country global digital rights organisations, activists, academics and analysts such as the University of Cape Town's (UCT) Associate Professor of Media Studies, Tanja Bosch, compared the digital rights landscapes of ten African countries to come to a worrying conclusion: over the last 20 years online civic space has been shut down at twice the rate it has been opened.

Researchers compared the digital rights’ landscapes of ten African countries: South Africa, Uganda, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt and Cameroon. Between the year 2000 and 2020, researchers recorded 115 examples of online civic space being closed down – mostly by national governments - but only 65 cases in which such spaces were opened.

The study defines online civic space as any digital space in which people are free to participate in governance, freely voice their opinions online or organise around issues that affect them personally and politically. Researchers found that in most cases it was national governments who had sought to close these spaces using a combination of internet shutdowns, digital surveillance, arrests for online speech and the introduction of laws suppressing free speech.

 

The study found that the trend by national governments to close civic space at twice the rate that it was opened held across the majority of countries studied.

The study also found that citizens responded to such government repression by repurposing technologies and platforms including SMS, social media, VPNs (virtual private networks) and encrypted messaging services.

In the majority of countries studied researchers identified a common sequence of events. Governments would close offline “real world” civic spaces, often in a bid to stifle dissent, which would then prompt citizens to create online spaces for civic participation. In response many governments then sought to close these online civic spaces too.

Two case studies: Uganda and Kenya

The study found that the trend by national governments to close civic space at twice the rate that it was opened held across the majority of countries studied.

In Uganda for example, the national government instituted a tax on social media and has also resorted to internet shut downs during elections and periods of civil unrest. Despite these measures activists have used technology such as VPNs to avoid the tax and continue organizing online, often using viral hashtags such as #FreeStellaNyanzi and #FreeBobiWine, two political prisoners who were later released by the Ugandan government after having been arrested.

In Kenya, according to the IDS statement, Kenyan feminists have made “extensive use of online space and social media to voice concerns ignored by mainstream media and the Bloggers Association of Kenya have been active in defending digital rights of citizens right to speak out online.”

In Kenya, a country well known as a hub of mobile technology innovation, the online crowdsourced platform Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, was used to map instances of violence after the 2007 elections. Ushahidi is now being used across the globe as a way to monitor elections in many countries, as well as map cases of sexual harassment in Egypt and the humanitarian crisis in Haiti.

Digital rights support human rights

According to a statement by the Institute of Development Studies, which hosts the African Digital Rights Network, the suppression of online civic space has serious consequences.

“The overall impact is a reduction in digital rights to privacy, freedom of opinion, and freedom of speech that are crucial for open, democratic societies. Such ‘digital authoritarianism’ is a serious threat to fragile democracies and could threaten the integrity of elections in over 50 African countries with elections scheduled in the next five years (EISA 2020).”

Juliet Nanfuka, a digital rights researcher at The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and member of the African Digital Rights Network, explains digital rights are important because they enable human rights.

 

“Self-censorship online is being fueled by financial restrictions and online content regulation. All of these actions inhibit freedom of expression and access to information, both of which are fundamental to have a flourishing civic space.”

“They allow for civic engagement, right to freedom of expression, right to assembly and so much more. In the COVID-19 era, the role of digital rights has become even more pronounced as the digital society must become much more inclusive.”

Nanfuka is also concerned about the role of self-censorship in closing online civic spaces.

“Self-censorship online is being fueled by financial restrictions and online content regulation. All of these actions inhibit freedom of expression and access to information, both of which are fundamental to have a flourishing civic space.”

The African Digital Network is funded by the UKRI-GCRF Digital Innovation for Development in Africa (DIDA).


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