Paradigm Initiative Launches 2019 Digital Rights In Africa Report

By Uzman Unis Bah

Accra, Ghana – the Paradigm Initiative has launched the 2019 digital rights in Africa report; giving an in-depth analysis of the state of digital rights in Africa, the report paints a miserable picture of the state of the digital right in the continent.

The report examines defilements such as internet disruptions, illegal surveillance, detention of bloggers and the espousal of spiteful legislation that make the work of media practitioners more challenging. 

In Benin, the report finds the government in November 2018 significantly increased prices of mobile Internet data; the country has legal provisions to oversee digital activities. “All of these provisions are kept in the guise of transforming the country into a hub for digital services in Africa,” the report claims. The report further disclosed, “The new law criminalizes the publication of false information, online press offences and incitement of rebellion using the Internet.”

The report accounts that Internet shutdown was condemned by civil society organizations and the Embassy of the United States in Benin, showing a stack decline of the country’s democracy. It states.

“In 2019, in response to human rights abuses perpetrated in Cameroon, a statement by President Donald Trump was sent to the Cameroonian authorities stating that the country would be removed from participating in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), with the sanction expected to come into force in January 2020.” The report affirmed. According to the report, the Cameroonian government is yet to respond to the United State Government’s concern over the persistent human rights violations committed by its security forces.

From West Africa to North Africa, similar repressive tactics transpires. “Digital rights in Egypt, in the past 4 years, has been shaped by the brutal repression by the Sisi regime, and the prospects for the future of digital rights under the regime is not exactly bright.” The report accounts.

It claims “The Computer Crime Proclamation of 2016 supplements other proclamations in Ethiopia that restrict Internet’s freedom by criminalizing legitimate speech as defamation and giving intelligence and law enforcement agencies untamed power to conduct surveillance…”

The Broadcasting Service Proclamation and the Charities and Societies Proclamation are part of regulations used to exercise control over the human rights landscape; it is evident, internet shutdowns are very common in Ethiopia. “…longest of all shutdowns came, on 23rd June 2019, in the aftermath of high-profile political assassinations of top military officials in Addis Ababa and the President of Amhara region, along with his two top advisers in Bahir Dar, Amhara region’s capital.” The report furthered.

In 2019, Malawi had it first Internet disruption that lasted for about 6 hours. “Television and radio networks were also reported to have been down in some parts of the country.” the report points out. The report exposed high-level censorships; it states, “One digital rights-related arrest was recorded in 2019, of a man who was jailed for likening the first lady, Gertrude Mutharika, to a cartoon character on social media.”

Successive African governments have been using these strategies to suppress non-conforming opinions, to dispirit the voices in society that tend to stir public knowledge on government flaws and dysfunctionality.

“In a demonstration of the general digital rights climate in Morocco, ongoing-targeted spyware attacks against human rights defenders have been discovered in the country, beginning from 2017 to date. These attacks, reported by Amnesty International, have been implemented using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. These attacks were carried out through SMS messages carrying malicious links that if clicked, would attempt to exploit the mobile device of the victim and install NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.” The report noted.

“We noted that the most obvious manifestation of the worsening human rights situation in Nigeria could be discerned in the numerous arrests of citizens, bloggers and journalists since the political transition in May 2015. Tracking by Paradigm Initiative has revealed a continued spike in arrests of dissenting and critical voices in Nigeria, with an initial peak observed in 2017. The year 2019, however, was much worse.” The report revealed.

Digital rights in Nigeria are under threat, as the Digital Rights in Africa Report 2019 indicates several legislations and policies, which have been in development over the past few years that aims to stifle the media.  The Terrorism Amendment Bill, the draft Executive Hate Speech Bill- that was submitted to the Ministry of Justice in 2017 and the Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches Bill, 2018, all amounts to schemes of preventing free speech, it accounts.

It further stated, “at least two of this repressive legislation have now been resurrected, less than 6 months into the 9th National Assembly in 2019. Within the space of one week, the Nigerian senate introduced two draft laws that are poised to negatively affect how Nigerians use online platforms for expressing opinions and views.”

“Rwanda’s Media Law is oppressive as it states, in Article 83, penalties for crimes committed through the press such as vague language and any publication that is considered to be in “contempt to the Head of State” or “endangers public decency.” Rwandan Penal Code is an oppressive law, which has sections on defamation and privacy offences, journalists work at risk of getting imprisonment for doing their job.  “Some media occasionally broadcast programs on ‘sensitive’ issues; however, most are heavily dominated by pro-government views. Earlier in 2019, Rwanda proposed a countrywide DNA database, a project that will involve collecting samples from all 12 million citizens, to address crime.” It states.

“This has prompted concerns among human rights campaigners who believe the database could be misused by the government to violate international human rights laws.” It notes.

It is indicated,  although additional explanation has been made towards the implementation of this proposal, it notes that Rwanda’s Data Protection and Privacy Policy is not comprehensive enough to handle such a complex database.

The report shows there is a consistent effort by these countries to suppress dissenting opinions; Sudan is not different from the other countries in introducing new laws that suppress dissenting voices.  “This was done by introducing a new cybercrime law and making amendments to the media law, both of which were passed in June 2018. The new cybercrime law announced criminal penalties for the spread of fake news online, while amendments to the media law required online journalists to register with the Journalism Council.”

These new laws gave more power to the Sudan government in crackdown on online activities. The Cybercrime Law states that online publishing on different platforms can fall under the category of –“spreading fake news”. “It also uses vaguely defined terms that help regulate the content produced and consumed online” The report disclosed, and furthered that, “In recent protests, Reporters Without Borders (RSF)125 condemned the Sudanese government’s abuses of media and journalists in attempts to deter them from publishing ongoing protests.”

An upshot of the fact, both the ordinary man and the journalist are faced with the challenge of not being able to exercise their freedom of expression in this Sudan. “Arrests over content posted on social media is not uncommon.” It attests.

According to the report, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, are all using laws that help to suppress free media. The report affirms that “In the past few years, digital rights violations in Africa have been on the increase because civil societies have borne a disproportionate burden of the required work in the context of what ought to be a multi-stakeholder effort. Until governments and private sector organizations assume greater responsibility for digital rights, the status quo will largely remain.”

The report illustrates a disturbing reality of how African nations design regulations not to give media laxity, but to muzzle media freedom, and to quash dissenting voices in the society. 

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