By Hans Ngala
The fifth edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) has ended with calls for media professionals to form coalitions to curb the harassment of these professionals by governments across Africa.
Three hundred participants from across Africa, Europe, Asia, North and South America discussed everything from fake news and disinformation to restrictive policies that make the work of journalists difficult and how these restrictions can be bypassed.
“Governments will always use ‘national security’ as an excuse to shut down the internet and repress freedom of expression”, Sulemana Braimah, executive director of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) told attendees at the opening of the two-day event in Accra, Ghana last week.
“This is the time to hold these stakeholders to account” he added.
Smaller sessions discussed how to stay safe online in a continent where being online and expressing oneself is often equated with “terrorism”.
The topic was handled by the Zone 9 bloggers, a group of Ethiopian bloggers; some of whom were arrested and allegedly jailed for doing their job by the Ethiopian authorities.
“Governments label those who are brave to fight for justice as terrorists” said Befekadu Hailu, one of the Zone 9 bloggers narrating how he was tortured for simply blogging.
Discussions in other panels addressed the issue ‘fake news’ across social media platforms on the continent.
Journalists and bloggers were called upon to go last with a story and first with the truth to ensure that they don’t fall victim to the dissemination of unverified information. Added to this, they would need to find tools that will help them to verify the authenticity of photos, audio, tweets and other infographics that sometimes pass for ‘news’ on social media when they really are not.
“The internet nowadays is just as important as water or electricity. You simply cannot do without it” Peter Asare from the Pan African University in Cameroon told the audience. “You cannot separate your life online from your life offline’’ and so “we better fight for the right to freedom on the internet” Charles Onyangobo from Africapedia said.
Cameroon, Gabon, Togo and a host of other African countries have shut down internet connectivity within the last two years mainly for reasons to do with politics. A phenomenon which will “continue with impunity unless we rise up to denounce this ill in the strongest possible terms” according to Olumide Babalola, a Nigerian lawyer.
“We, like the proverbial hunter who shoots without missing, must also find ways to circumvent the incessant censorship by governments on cyberspace” stated Dr. Waraigala Wakabi from the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).
It is worth mentioning that the FIFAfrica is a landmark event that convenes various stakeholders from the internet governance and online rights arenas in Africa and abroad to discuss issues relating to internet governance and internet freedom.
This is the first time it was held in West Africa, having been hosted in East and Southern Africa before. This year’s event was jointly hosted by CIPESA and the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) and saw students, academics, journalists, opposition politicians, ICT experts, human rights activists among several others in attendance.