The African Digital Rights Network publishes the first comparative study on the digital rights landscapes of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Sudan, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Cameroon.
In the first study of its kind, researchers in ten African countries have documented 115 examples of technologies, tactics and techniques used between 2000 and 2020 to close ‘civic space’ online – the digital spaces where people organise, voice different political opinions, and participate in governance. In contrast, over the same 20-year period there were only 65 examples of steps taken to open civic space.
In each country, it is typically the national government taking action to close civic space and diminish digital rights with the five most common ways being though digital surveillance; disinformation; internet shutdowns; introduction of laws reducing rights and arrests for online speech. In response to government repression, the reports found 65 examples of where citizens had made creative use of digital technologies such as SMS, social media, encrypted messaging and VPNs to voice opposition and open new civic space online.
The ten digital rights landscape reports were produced by authors from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Sudan, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Cameroon. These countries were selected as representative of the main geographical regions of the continent, as well as a range of levels of civic space openness, political and internet freedoms, and economic development. Each report analysed the digital technologies, tools, tactics, or techniques used by government, citizens, CSOs and other organisations being used to open or close civic space in their country.
Overall, the research shows that when civic space closes offline, citizens respond by opening civic space online. However, this often prompts governments to take measures to close online space. The overall impact is a reduction in digital rights to privacy, freedom of opinion, and freedom of speech that are crucial for open, democratic societies. Such ‘digital authoritarianism’ is a serious threat to fragile democracies and could threaten the integrity of elections in over 50 African countries with elections scheduled in the next five years (EISA 2020).
Dr. Tony Roberts, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, and co-author of the report ‘Opening Civic Space Online: Digital Rights in Africa’, said:
“In an increasingly digital world, the human rights we protect offline must be protected online. These ‘digital rights’ are especially important in countries where there is no free press and, where street demonstrations or criticisms of the government are not possible making online spaces the only place where people can safely speak out and mobilise. Yet, our research in ten African countries, found twice as many examples of digital technologies being used to close rather than open civic space online.
“Increasingly, when a new technology or campaign emerges, governments find a way to shut down this civic space. This ‘digital authoritarianism’ has fundamental implications for democratic societies and is why it’s so important that we raise awareness and build capacity across Africa to promote and protect citizens’ digital rights.”
Juliet Nanfuka, digital rights researcher at The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and member of the African Digital Rights Network, based in Uganda, said:
“Digital rights are important because they enable our human rights, for example, they allow for civic engagement, right to freedom of expression, right to assembly and so much more. In the COVID-19 era, the role of digital rights has become even more pronounced as the digital society must become much more inclusive.
“However, research by the African Digital Rights Network shows that online civic spaces are being closed through various repressive actions, including unwarranted arrests, unwarranted surveillance and various forms of intimidation. In addition, self-censorship online is being fuelled by financial restrictions and online content regulation. All of these actions inhibit freedom of expression and access to information, both of which are fundamental to have a flourishing civic space.”
Atnaf Brhane, who was jailed for 540 days as one of Ethiopia’s Zone9 Bloggers and co-founder of the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy, said:
“Civic space has been under attack in Ethiopia since 2005. Many, many journalists left the country because of intimidation, and many human rights defenders, journalists and politicians were in prison. So, the civic space was very much tied. That led to a country wide protest, demanding, freedom of expression for freedom of political space and other civic space
“Technology is integrated in our life. It makes our life easier. But lack of digital literacy and internet shutdowns are making life, very, very difficult, reducing freedom of expression and access to information. Misinformation and hate speech in social media are being used as a reason to shut down the internet by the government. So, the absence of digital rights will put freedom of expression and access to information at stake.”
The Opening Civic Space Online: Digital Rights in Africa reports have been conducted by the newly launched African Digital Rights Network, which brings together a unique combination of 30 in-country global digital rights organisations, activists, academics and analysts committed to enhancing citizens’ ability to exercise, defend and expand citizens their digital rights. Network members contribute to this goal by producing evidence, raising awareness, and building local capacity to independently monitor, analyse, and effectively overcome any restriction to digital rights or online democratic spaces. The Network is funded by the UKRI – GCRF Digital Innovation for Development in Africa (DIDA).