What is the state of digital rights in Africa and the rest of the world?
A London-based non-profit called Small Media is on a mission and is dedicated to championing digital rights led a session this issue during the Forum on Internet Freedom Africa (#FIFAfrica) in Ethiopia. The non-profit implemented a project called UPROAR which aims to put digital rights firmly on the global human rights agenda.
We had a chat with Bronwen Robertson, director of Global Programmes at Small Media on the sidelines of #FIFAfrica about digital rights in Africa.
What are digital rights?
The concept of digital rights typically relates to the protection and realisation of human rights in digital spaces. Generally, digital rights can be defined as rights encompassing the right to privacy and the right to freedom of opinion and expression. However, at Small Media, we believe that digital rights extend far beyond that. They tend to use the phrase “human rights online” to describe digital rights. This is because in many spaces, for example, at the United Nations where UPROAR lobbies and advocates for digital rights through the Universal Periodic Review, it is difficult for diplomats and other stakeholders to understand the direct implication of digital rights violations on the broader human rights landscape.
Robertson says they have found it challenging to let people know how important the protection of human rights online and offline is, especially in shrinking spaces and geographies where marginalised and vulnerable groups are already at risk.
“Sometimes ‘online’ is the only space where at-risk groups can assemble and express an opinion, so it’s incredibly important to invest resources and advocacy efforts into increasing these spaces and preventing them from closing.”
What is the state of digital rights in Africa?
According to Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa’s (CIPESA) State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2019 report, African countries have expanded the measures they use to govern the use of digital communications including the internet. The report shows that between 2016–2019 at least 22 countries experienced a government-ordered network disruption, many of which targeted popular social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. That means nearly half of the countries in Africa have experienced internet shutdowns. Since January 2019, internet shutdowns have been reported in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
CIPESA concluded that the implementation of oppressive laws and regulations is on the rise and there is evidence that countries are using legislation to legitimise practices such as imposing restrictions and internet controls, which are otherwise deemed unlawful and in violation of international human rights standards. These restrictive laws are curbing political oppositions, clamping down on criticism and suppressing freedom of expression and opinion.
The full state of internet freedom and digital rights can be found in CIPESA’s State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2019 report.
How can African digital activists approach the digital rights issues in their countries?
The starting point for any digital activist is understanding the legislative framework of the country they are advocating in. For example, if bloggers are being arrested, or content is being censored, on what legal basis is the government doing this? Many times governments use the justification of ‘national security’ or ‘anti-terrorism’ to defend actions and practices that are in clear violation of internationally recognised human rights standards. CIPESA’s report shares some the examples of African countries using oppressive laws and regulations to infringe on digital rights.
It’s all about identifying advocacy opportunities. If there are opportunities to connect with and communicate with the local, regional or national government, and to engage in multi-stakeholder processes, then it’s important to seize those opportunities. If they don’t exist, and it’s not possible to create them, keeping embassies of ‘internet freedom champions’ in your respective countries informed of emerging situations is very important. Lobbying them to take a stance for you on the international stage (such as through the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations) can be an effective measure.
Most importantly, activists need to find ways of informing the general population about the implications of the measures the government is taking. For instance, Uganda’s recent investment in CCTV cameras. Many are concerned this is a move to implement technical systems that, when combined with facial recognition technology, will aid the government to crack down on protesters during the 2021 elections. In the United Kingdom a common argument from the general population regarding surveillance technologies is, , “well it’s ok, I don’t have anything to hide, this is about catching criminals,” but in the absence of transparency regarding data protection and privacy, which is especially the case in Uganda, this is certainly something to be worried about! Activists need to find ways of engaging communities in taking direct action against these moves and holding their governments accountable.
What is UPROAR doing to advance digital rights around the world?
UPROAR is implementing a four-year program to support local and regional civil society organisations across 24 target countries to engage in the Universal Periodic Review to take a stand for human rights online.
“We’re supporting the community through training workshops, online courses, and opportunities to travel to Geneva to lobby diplomats. We’re also producing online tools that can help civil society engage in the Universal Periodic Review process in a fun way. Anyone interested in finding out more about the online tools can explore the beta version of the tools UPROAR has made here and users are encouraged to provide feedback on how UPROAR can improve these!”
Which courses would you recommend for anyone wanting to take any digital rights-related modules?
Take any of the courses on Advocacy Assembly. Although they’re not directly about digital rights, there is a lot of great material designed to improve the impact that grassroots organisations and actors can have. Especially the courses called “Introduction to the Universal Periodic Review” and “Making an Impact with the Universal Periodic Review”. To get a better insight into digital rights in general, it’s important to check out the work of a number of organisations: CIPESA, DefendDefenders, Privacy International, Association for Progressive Communications, Freedom House, and Article 19. The list goes on, but that’s a great starting point for anyone interested in digital rights!.
Anything else we should know about digital rights?
The time to act is now! We need free and open access to the internet for all, and spaces are shrinking rapidly.