Chinese and Russian models of information controls used by dictatorships and closed societies have hugely impacted the state of digital rights in Africa. The new approach to cyberspace control has been largely facilitated by the export of technology and training from these two countries. This is according to the Digital Rights in Africa Report, 2019 released by the Paradigm Initiative.

It is assumed that the control of the information space is synonymous with control of the political space in a country.  Some African governments have been using Internet connectivity and digital access to retain political power and exercising political control over its citizens.

At the end of 2018, the number of people online reached 51.2% which translated to 3.9 billion people. The sheer number of people online has shown how important the internet is to individuals, communities, organizations and governments to progress their economies. Despite this, it is interesting to note how African countries have been more focused on using the internet to control and promote a climate of fear, instead of leveraging it for development.

Paradigm Initiative had in its 2018 report found that the export of Chinese and Russian models of the so-called “rule of law” tactics towards control of the Internet has seen the increase in government control and digital rights violations especially through clever legislations that were curated to “promote law and order” in societies in Africa.

An example is Kenya which has been using the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Law 2018 to control the flow of information online. Since the announcement of the first Covid-19 case in Kenya, a Kenya Airways employee has been suspended, two bloggers and a 23-year-old student have been arrested for criticizing the government on how they have handled the virus.

The report recognizes that there has been an increase in the impact of African organizations championing digital rights such as affordable and quality Internet connectivity, privacy, freedom of opinion, expression and association. These organizations, such as the Bloggers Association of Kenya, has made immense strides in changing the attitudes of citizens and institutions toward digital rights and access. Their vigorous advocacy is forcing Kenyans to take an interest in digital rights. More Kenyans and Africans, in general, have become sensitized to the harm’s digital rights violations, like Internet shutdowns and illegal surveillance cause to society. But, with these strides, some African countries have been on a mission to obliterate these efforts as evidenced by successive Internet shutdowns in Ethiopia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon, especially during elections. This had begged the question of whether the digital rights advocacy programs in Africa have been enough.

There is an emerging pattern the global advocacy for digital rights, that is, the states and private sector organizations wield more power and influence on decisions and actions in the internet governance space. Many technology companies only seem to pay attention to digital rights when it affects their financial bottom line. Compared to the resources they have against civil society; it is not exactly a fair fight. As a result, more countries are openly violating digital rights, under the guise of the rule of law, with states using their licensing and regulatory power over telecommunications and technology companies to order violations of digital rights. Digital rights are unfortunately a civil society’s lonely fight. “Until governments and private sector organizations assume greater responsibility for digital rights, the status quo will largely remain,” says the report.

Read the full report: Digital Rights in Africa Report 2019