By Sodiq Alabi
The 2017 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa held in Johannesburg between September 27 and 29. According to the organisers, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the Association for Progressive Communication (APC), FIFAfrica is an annual assembly of discussions towards promoting a Free and Open Internet in Africa. I attended the forum as a representative of Paradigm Initiative and I share some important insights I learnt during the 3-day Forum.
- How Internet Refugee Camps helped Cameroonians during shutdown: Have you ever wondered how people managed to survive the 93-day internet shutdown in parts of Cameroon? The keynote speaker at the Forum, Rebecca Enonchong told the gathering about the resilience and innovation of the people of Cameroon who were denied internet services for more than three months. Internet refugee camps were created in areas where there were internet services. People would travel a great deal of distance to make use of internet in those centres. Sometimes they would give their phones to others travelling to those places so their pending messages and emails could be received. As Ms Enonchong, a tech entrepreneur shared this experience, I began to appreciate more the centrality of internet services to our lives. It is important that no government should have the right to turn it off just to deny citizens their freedom of speech.
- Africa as a country: Over the course of several panels with stakeholders from different countries in Africa, I noticed several similarities in many of the stories the panellists and audience shared. These similarities were so strong that it was possible to mistake a discussion on terrible tech policies in Zimbabwe for one on Tanzania. The only major differences are the actors and the countries concerned, but other details of an attempt to stifle dissent, to regulate (read: emasculate) civil society, the use of national security as a defence for internet shut down or regulation, all these details stand. When it comes to the internet, Africa may as well be a country where all the provinces compare notes on how to deny their citizens and residents inalienable rights. Just look at the number of African countries that have used their recently passed Cybercrime laws to persecute dissenters. Look at the number of African countries that have embarked on comprehensive and multiple data capturing of their peoples without a decent data privacy law and framework. Look at the number of African countries that have passed or are about to pass an NGO regulatory bill, something Kenya has shown to be quite effective in muzzling the voice of an NGO the government does not like.
- Platform and collaboration remain paramount: For digital rights advocates to be able to put up a decent fight against governments bent on discarding digital rights, there is a need to create, sustain and expand platforms for sharing of ideas and incubating collaborative efforts. Platforms like FIFAfrica and Paradigm Initiative’s Internet Freedom Forum must be sustained and expanded to ensure sufficient coverage of all countries in Africa. In addition, Francophone Africa deserves more attention than they are currently getting and there is a need to nurture platforms in those countries that are currently under-covered. Closely related to that is the issue of collaboration between organisations with interest in digital rights and inclusion. The impact of collaboration could be seen in the way organisations came together to protest against internet shutdown in Cameroon and Togo. Collaboration also extends to sharing of information, ideas and leveraging others’ resources and expertise instead of reinventing the wheel. This is already happening to an extent, but it is important to improve the system and platforms that enable collaboration. As Delta Ndou, a Zimbabwean journalist and digital activist said at the Forum, advocates must also learn to amplify their messages using traditional media, which remains largely the media of the elite and political leaders. That we are working on internet freedom does not mean the advocacy should be limited to online platform. While the coverage of the Forum online was excellent with the hashtag trending throughout the duration of the Forum, the coverage in the traditional media of South Africa was far from perfect. This is heartbreaking because many important issues explored at the Forum would have benefited from media coverage. We must do more to collaborate with print and broadcast media to amplify our messages. This is important because oppressive internet policies affect human rights online and offline. Operators of traditional media should also be more receptive to collaboration on digital rights issues as a gag on online media will affect traditional media eventually.