African governments have now adopted a new legal and sophisticated clever trend of using the rule of the law tactic to stifle internet freedoms of their citizens. In a report titled, “Legislating Restriction: How African Governments Use Restrictive Laws prepared by Paradigm Initiative, dictators and oppressive regimes across the continent, including Tanzania, Uganda Zambia, Egypt Benin and Togo have employed ‘cynical use of legislation policies to give legitimacy to actions which threaten the future democratic, open and inclusive societies across the continent.’

The report has also shown that whereas these states are quick to rush towards the passage of legislations that violate digital rights, they have either refused to implement calls of the enactment of legislation which protect digital rights or have introduced delays in the passage of such laws and policies.

Another trend that the report interestingly noted is the blatant disregard of the existing frameworks protecting digital rights. For example, there have been arrests of citizens for harmless comments made online, illegal surveillance of citizens and internet shutdowns, which in the constitution are termed illegal.

“The increasing influence of China and Russia in global affairs is definitely changing perceptions about the thresholds of what is acceptable or not in human rights standards. Even more so, it would seem many African countries have begun to borrow a leaf from repressive foreign governments’ playbooks for violating digital rights,” the report continued.

Considering this, the report has come up with suggestions that the civil society can respond to this new threat. These include:

1. Strategic litigation

African countries have increasingly become violators of digital rights. Nevertheless, some civil society groups have boldly approached the courts and went on to obtain favourable rulings which reversed digital rights violations. For instance, we The Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE) went to court in May 2018 and managed to get 26 sections of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime law that proved problematic, suspended.

2. Actively seeking partners within the legislative houses

House of parliament across Africa have become vehicles for the passing of laws which infringe on digital rights. Despite playing this role, however, Houses of Parliament are also potentially spaces where partnerships can be forged between civil society groups working on digital rights and legislators who are supportive of human rights ideals.

“It is important for civil society in Africa to work towards building bridges of understanding between them and legislators towards improving the legal framework around digital rights in Africa. This approach proved viable in Nigeria, where civil society partnerships with legislature resulted in the passage of the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill into law.”

3. Using agencies of the regional court

Another strategy for litigation which has proved potent in recent years is strategic litigation for digital rights through African regional courts such as African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, East African Court of Justice and Ecowas Court of Justice. This approach is important in African contexts because of the effect of regional cooperation and peer-pressure on individual member states of African regions. This avenue for litigation presents itself as another route through which civil society can expand their advocacy.

4. African Wide coalition building for shared experiences

The increasingly sophisticated avenues of attacks on digital rights on the continent, which now includes the use of legal instruments, requires that digital rights activists pool and share knowledge and experiences. Particularly in the aid of partner activist organizations with deficits in the knowledge and experience required to confront these new legal challenges to digital rights. African governments are now learning from each other in the implementation of legal mechanisms which violate digital rights. It wouldn’t, therefore, be a disservice if digital rights activists in Africa also work together across regions to combat government overreach and violations of digital rights on the continent.

You can download the report by Paradigm Initiative here.

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