Three ways to tackle digital rights in Africa

Screenshot of a group protesting at Erisco Foods from YouTube Video, ‘Tomato Paste Saga: Groups Protest At Erisco Foods, Demand End To Chioma Okoli‘ by News Central TV. Fair use.

In September 2023, a pregnant Nigerian woman, Chioma Okoli was arrested over a negative food review she posted on Facebook. Her offense: annoying a billionaire — a crime punishable by a three-year sentence or a fine of seven million naira (about USD 3,000) under Nigeria's Cybercrimes Act 2015.  

Since 2015, this Act has been used to arrest dozens of journalists, bloggers, and citizens at the bidding of the country's authorities. Laws like this exist in different forms across the continent, where state actors have continued undermining digital freedoms. Global Voices interviewed  Shirley Ewang, a senior advocacy and governance specialist at Gatefield, via email, to understand the state of digital rights in Africa. 

Zita Zage (ZZ): Tell us about yourself and the work you do. 

Shirley Ewang (SE): I'm a seasoned senior advocacy and governance specialist. Currently, I have the privilege of leading the policy, governance, and advocacy practice at Gatefield, a leading public policy and advocacy firm in Africa. With a robust background in policy advocacy, I specialize in devising and executing high-impact campaigns that drive meaningful change. Throughout my career, I've spearheaded initiatives that have shaped policies and influenced decision-making at local, national, and international levels. Passionate about effecting positive societal change, I remain dedicated to leveraging my expertise to address pressing social issues and advocate for equitable solutions.

ZZ: Can you describe the state of digital rights in Africa? 

SE: According to the 2023 Freedom on the Net report by Freedom House, global internet freedom has been in decline for the 13th consecutive year, with 29 countries experiencing a deterioration of human rights online.

The state of digital rights in Africa is alarming, marked by a concerning trend of erosion across the continent. Instances such as Nigeria's Twitter ban to Senegal's internet restrictions exemplify the extent to which governments are infringing upon citizens’ online freedoms. 

As the internet becomes increasingly integral to daily life, encompassing activities from business transactions to advocacy efforts, the struggle for access and internet freedom intensifies.  

However, this pursuit is countered by governments seeking to exert control over cyberspace, often through the enactment of cybercrime laws. While these laws are essential for addressing cyber threats such as fraud and hacking, many African countries have implemented legislation that is overly broad and lacks specificity.

In their efforts to regulate online conduct, these laws frequently fail to clearly define what constitutes criminal behavior, leading to arbitrary enforcement and suppression of fundamental rights. For instance, in countries like Zambia and Tanzania, cybercrime laws have been weaponized to silence dissent and criminalize investigative journalism. Nigeria's 2015 Cybercrimes Act is another poignant example, having been repeatedly utilized to target journalists, bloggers, and ordinary citizens exercising their right to free expression. This confluence of restrictive legislation and authoritarian enforcement measures poses a significant threat to digital rights in Africa.

ZZ: What can and should be done (and by whom) to combat digital rights abuses effectively?

 SE: To combat digital rights abuses effectively, three key actions can be taken:

First, engagement with key stakeholders such as journalists, technology companies, civil society, and human rights activists should be prioritized to form a robust coalition. A collective voice can exert pressure on governments to amend oppressive laws.

Second, storytelling should be used as a powerful tool to illustrate the human impact of digital rights abuses and mobilize public demand for action.

In addition, court judgments should be utilized as a strong foundation for advocacy efforts. Advocates can leverage legal rulings to make their case against digital rights abuses.

These efforts should be a collective endeavor, with governments, civil society, technology companies, and the public all playing integral roles in combating digital rights abuses. While governments have a responsibility to uphold fundamental human rights, effective advocacy requires collaboration and coordination across multiple sectors.  Advocates must take collective action, and the public can raise their voices to demand the safeguarding of digital rights, effectively pressuring governments to take action. By working together, we can better protect digital rights and ensure a free and open online environment for all.

ZZ: Which advocacy work have you found impactful and why?

SE: Two notable examples of impactful digital rights advocacy in Africa include efforts in Nigeria and Uganda. In Nigeria, civil society organisations successfully advocated for the amendment of the repressive Section 24 of the Nigerian Cybercrimes Act, a repressive provision that threatened digital rights. By advocating for this amendment, these organizations helped to safeguard online freedom of expression and limit the potential for abuse of the law.

Similarly, in Uganda, advocates employed strategic litigation to challenge a controversial section of an Act, ultimately leading to a landmark ruling by the country's Supreme Court. This ruling declared the provision unconstitutional, marking a significant victory for digital rights in Uganda.

These advocacy efforts demonstrate the power of grassroots mobilization, strategic litigation, and coalition building in advancing digital rights across the African continent. By challenging oppressive laws and holding governments accountable, advocates have made tangible progress in promoting online freedom and protecting the rights of internet users.


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