This article is part of UPROAR, a Small Media initiative that is urging governments to address digital rights challenges at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where armed conflict has gripped the region for decades, rebel groups often use kidnappings to secure ransoms in their bid for power in the region.
According to LUCHA, a nonviolent, nonpartisan citizen movement, kidnappers have repeatedly used telecommunications networks to intimidate victims’ families, demand and receive ransoms through mobile money services.
LUCHA has launched a campaign across the country to reclaim digital rights violated by these telecoms companies. The group wants telecom companies to “cooperate with the security services, to geolocate the kidnappers and find their collaborators in order to reduce insecurity…,” according to RFI.
Since March 2019, LUCHA has staged peaceful demonstrations in front of telecoms offices to demand better quality services and more cooperation with security, Espoir Ngalukiye, a LUCHA member, told Global Voices.
Today, a citizen movement is underway to reclaim digital rights that have been violated for years under a vague and outdated framework law from 2002 related to post and telecommunications that still governs the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector.
The law does not adequately address human rights violations or impunity for those who violate those rights. In fact, the law enables the government to violate users’ digital rights: Authorities have previously used the law to justify the disruption of access to networks and social media platforms.
Under Article 45 of the law, authorities have the power to ban “partially or in full and for a period they determine the usage of telecommunications installation’’ for public security and national defense reasons. The government also has the power to requisition telecommunications facilities under the same law.
The poor quality of digital services and the nonexistence of adapted legal frameworks in the country have led to multiple violations of rights to freedom of expression and privacy.
Demanding accountability from telecoms
Telecom companies have faced increased criticism for their quality of services and prices. In response, LUCHA released a campaign demanding lower prices in 2019 and re-launched it in 2020.
Un an après le lancement de notre campagne #ABasLesPrix pour exiger des sociétés de télécommunication de meilleurs services aux clients et des tarifs justes; étant donné la non tenue de leurs engagements et de ceux de l’@OfficielArptc, nous relançons la pression dès lundi 16 mars pic.twitter.com/xNQRADMlG7
— LUCHA ?? (@luchaRDC) March 12, 2020
One year after the launch of our #ABasLesPrix campaign to demand better service for customers and fair prices from telecommunications companies; considering the non-fulfilment of their commitments and those of the @OfficielArptc, we are restarting pressure from Monday, March 16
Fed up by poor digital services, citizens have begun to express their indignation toward telecoms and some have threatened to take legal action.
On July 3, a citizen explicitly accused Orange DRC, a subsidiary of the multinational French telecommunication group Orange, of infringing on his rights to communicate and express himself by depriving him of the possibility of using data packages that he had already activated.
Un droit se réclame.
J’ai saisi @Orange__RDC pour ses abus avant de saisir la Justice. Hier, j’ai connu le pire comme certains abonnés à Kisangani.
Ma lettre ?? pic.twitter.com/nF2WYEfVvE
— Jean-François D. ALAUWA B. (@AlauwaBO) July 3, 2020
A right is claimed. I informed @Orange__RDC of their abuses before going to justice. Yesterday I experienced the worst like some subscribers in Kisangani . My letter…
But many of these complaints did not lead to convictions because the law was too vague to offer guidance on this type of violations.
Could new legislation protect the rights of Congolese?
Meanwhile, a bill initiated by the government is still awaiting promulgation by President Félix Tshisekedi.
During a February 19 broadcast of “Parole aux auditeurs” talk show on Radio OKAPI, a United Nations radio station, professor Kodjo Ndukuma, a digital expert, announced that a “bill related to telecoms had been introduced by the government in April 2017.”
The bill was adopted by the National Assembly on May 7, 2018, and “definitively adopted” on November 22, 2018.
On February 7, Hon. National Deputy Tony Mwaba also tabled a bill ”on cybersecurity and cybercrime.” He did not provide any additional details on the content of the bill.
J'ai déposé ce vendredi 7 février 2020 au bureau de l'assemblée nationale, une proposition de loi portant cybersecurité et cybercriminalité. Dans l'espoir de combler le vide juridique qu'affiche ce secteur en RDC.
— Honorable Tony Mwaba (@ProfesseurTony) February 8, 2020
This Friday, February 7, 2020, I tabled a bill on cyber security and cybercrime at the office of the national assembly. Hoping to fill the legal vacuum that this sector shows in DR CONGO.
What remains unclear though is whether these bills, if enacted, will in any way protect the rights of users in DR Congo. The bills have not been made available to the public.
A push to be ‘proactive’
During the airing of “Parole aux auditeurs,” some listeners encouraged and complimented the government and parliamentarians for having an “anticipatory” culture that keeps up with incidents related to online human rights violations.
But other Congolese citizens were skeptical about the applicability of all these laws. One listener called in to say:
Ensuring citizens’ rights in the virtual space would require the government to have the necessary budget, staff and infrastructure to do even documentation or surveillance.
As long as there are unclear, ever-changing legal frameworks to protect human rights within the digital space, violations of rights to freedom of expression and privacy will continue. Citizens will also continue to fear claiming their rights because there's no assurance that these laws are designed to protect them in digital spaces.