Youth on the African continent have been challenged not to relent on the fight to safeguard human rights online because this is the fight of their generation. “Every generation has a fight. This generation’s fight is internet freedom. It is good to have a fight to fight. Once you have a society with no fight to fight, you are in trouble”, said seasoned journalist and founder of Africapedia, Charles Onyango-Obbo.
Speaking as the Chief Guest at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) 2018, Obbo charted the difficult path humans have taken to win freedoms over the years and was emphatic that for the current generation, the internet was “home” as well as the marketplace of ideas and commerce, hence protecting it at all costs is of utmost importance.
— Abdihakim Ainte (@AbdihakimAinte) September 27, 2018
Indeed, straddling the corridor to the entrance of the FIFAfrica main conference hall was an exhibition gallery with art and photo stories depicting the different struggles faced by internet users in Africa today. From shutdowns, surveillance, censorship and data breaches to arrests, low connectivity and imposition of taxes to access social media, the grim picture of the current state of internet freedom on the continent was well painted.
Day 2 of Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa #FIFAfrica18 in Accra!
— Pollicy (@PollicyOrg) September 28, 2018
It was underscored that the struggle should not be shouldered alone as partnerships and collaborations have produced results which could be scaled in any part of the continent. “People who struggle for press freedom often underestimate how the odds are in their favor”, added Obbo, as he voiced his support for unity, regardless of ones’ geographical location.
What is the cost of killing free expression online? There are costs to #humanrights & the economy, hurting #development & #democracies. At #FIFAfrica18 members of the #KeepItOn coalition are launching the Cost of Shutdown Tool #Africa. Background is here: https://t.co/mwZJW7IN0a
— Access Now (@accessnow) September 28, 2018
The two-day conference organized by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and co-hosted by the Media Foundation for West Africa featured the Zone 9 bloggers of Ethiopia who traveled out of Ethiopia to speak about their arrest and detention for the first time.
In February this year, charges against them were dropped and they were released, as part of wider reforms being undertaken by Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. In their conversations at the Forum, they asserted that they will continue, unhinged to speak on human rights abuses in the country.
The bloggers contextualized Obbo’s call for unity and collaboration by recounting how upon their arrest, people successfully reached out to Twitter and Facebook asking the platforms to suspend the Zone 9 accounts to ensure government officials do not access them, thereby opening a Pandora’s box of their network of partners and informers even within government. By this time, members of the collective had been tortured to surrender all their passwords.
@Abelpoly is one of the #Zone9Bloggers who along with others were arrested & tortured for blogging. Despite this, he has decided to UPGRADE HIS COMMITMENT to creating a better Ethiopia by going into media fully.#FIFAfrica18 #InternetFreedomAfrica pic.twitter.com/0yxekf38KT
— Raheena (@preedyfulriri_1) September 28, 2018
What was also unnerving were discussions on the rise of economic impediments being introduced by governments to clamp down on expression online. From Uganda’s daily taxes on social media, Tanzania’s requirement for bloggers and online content producers to register and pay for licenses, to Zambia’s move to levy internet based calls, the social and economic costs of these financial affronts on the internet were laid bare..
Kojo Boakye, the Public Policy Manager, Africa, Access and Connectivity at Facebook was emphatic that the imposition of financial restrictions on access to the internet was not only counterproductive to human rights but also the internet as an enabler of business efficiency. This growing trend champions the need to conduct research on the full extent of the impact of such measures and multi stakeholder collaboration on push back against implementation.
— CIPESA (@cipesaug) September 27, 2018
Another growing concern highlighted at the Forum was cybercrime and consumer protection online. It was noted that cybercrime was fast becoming a critical issue for both public and private institutions, and governments are working to formulate laws and regulations aimed at penalizing offences related to e-commerce but also national security.
However, jurisdictional challenges of these crimes came to the fore with the cross border nature of internet connectivity making it problematic to resolve crimes. The inadequacy or lack of protect data laws in some African countries compounded the problem.
In challenging the youth to work to redefine internet freedom in Africa, it was underscored that innovation and creativity were key to showcasing the immense benefits of the internet to governments and its citizens towards deterring the likelihood of restricting it.
“We must look for new ways to engage and defeat efforts to reduce online freedoms. Innovation thrives when there is unfettered access to information”, asserted Dr. Wakabi Wairagala, the Executive Director of CIPESA.