Repressive governments play whack-a-mole with Africans’ digital rights

Published on 13 April 2021

Tony Roberts

Digital Cluster Research Fellow

Like so many aspects of life, democratic debate is increasingly moving online. Yet it seems that every time citizens adopt a new digital tool or enter a new digital space to voice opposition, repressive governments respond with a whole arsenal of methods to dampen dissent and deny the right to opinion and expression.

For every new activist tactic, the state comes up with three or four countermeasures. Research by a new network of African digital rights researchers, activists and analysts has found that this digital game of whack-a-mole is playing out across the continent.

The right to be heard and to influence decision-making on issues that affect our lives is a cornerstone of open democracy and one of the UN’s sustainable development goals. In an increasingly digital world, being heard involves mobile phones and social media – especially during a pandemic when social distancing makes public protest both difficult and dangerous.

Marginalised groups have repeatedly adopted digital technologies to create online spaces where they can give voice to issues, influence debate and hold the powerful to account. #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are powerful examples of this in action.

The ability to use online space to voice dissent is particularly important in repressive contexts where public demonstrations or open criticism of government are met with violence or arrest. Such repression is growing around the world. Studies show that we have now experienced
Studies show that we have now experienced 15 consecutive years of global decline in political freedoms and only two of Africa’s 54 countries  – Cabo Verde and São Tomé and Principe – are now categorised as open democracies.

Ten years ago, digital tools and social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter played a supporting role in the North African revolutions that removed presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali from office in Egypt and Tunisia. Since then, social media has become a major element in the repertoire of activists across the continent. The citizen-led campaigns #RhodesMustFall in South Africa, #ENDSARS in Nigeria and #FreeBobiWine in Uganda have successfully challenged incumbent power and helped put neglected issues on to national and international agendas.

To counter the influence of online campaigns and reduce their potency, repressive governments have invested heavily in digital surveillance, disinformation and internet disruption technologies to deter dissent and dampen online democracy.

African Digital Rights Network

The African Digital Rights Network (ADRN) brings together 25 digital rights activists, researchers, journalists and policymakers from across Africa and the UK. The aim of the network is to produce evidence, raise awareness and help build the necessary capacity to enable citizens to exercise their digital rights safely and freely. It was established in 2020.

The network defines ‘digital rights’ as human rights in online spaces and agrees with the UN in wanting to see “all human rights respected in online space” – including the rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression.

Last month, it published the first study on the opening and closing of online civic space in ten African countries (Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe). The study identified 65 examples of activists using digital tools to open up civic space online, but almost (115) of governments using tech tools and tactics to close down online space. There are individual reports for each country.

The main pattern to emerge across all ten countries is that each new generation of digital technology used by activists to enable free expression is met by a barrage of government measures designed precisely to shut down those freedoms and deny citizens their digital rights. This has happened with SMS, blogging, social media and even with privacy and anonymisation tools.

Each new digital tool used by activists to enable free expression is met by a barrage of government measures designed to shut down those freedoms.

Tech-savvy activists often steal a march on the state in their creative use of new mobile and internet technologies to call out injustice and demand social change, but then the state mobilises its far greater power and resources to shut them down. Newton’s third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; in the case of digital activism, it seems there’s always an unequal and opposite reaction. It’s like a lopsided game of whack-a-mole.

Whack-a-mole games

Here are some of the study’s findings.

SMS activism There are hundreds of examples across Africa of SMS text messaging being used to voice dissent, advocate for marginalised groups, organise campaigns and mobilise populations. However, early success in SMS activism was met with a range of repressive measures including mandatory SIM card registration, message surveillance, bans on bulk SMS and arrests for political speech in SMS messaging.

Blogging activism The ability to create and publish a blog on issues ignored by mainstream media and political actors made blogging a key tool for activists. To reduce their potency, government used a variety of techniques including blocking websites and arresting bloggers for political speech, and web surveillance. Atnafu Brhane (who co-wrote the country report on Ethiopia) was a member of the Zone9 bloggers collective and spent 540 days in jail for blogging before establishing the human rights organisation CARD.

Social media activism Social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter have been the most powerful digital technologies for social activism, enabling the creation of very large social networks and the ability to instantly message thousands of contacts repeatedly at no incremental cost. It has also provoked the most concerted response by the state (and private corporations), involving the widest array of tech tools, tactics and techniques. These include internet shutdowns, to manipulate beliefs and behaviour – often using coordinated ‘troll armies’ and automated ‘bot-nets’ – and, of course, more arrests for online political speech.

Privacy tools One way of evading surveillance and the invasion of privacy is the use of anonymisation and privacy-protecting tools, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), encrypted messaging apps (for example, Signal), privacy-protecting browsers (Tor) and tracking-free search engines (DuckDuckGo). Ugandans have made widespread use of VPNs to digitally disguise their location. Millions are now migrating to more secure messaging apps. This has generated the ire of governments, who are now trying to hack, block or make illegal these tools to protect the universal right to privacy.

However, the countermeasures that repressive governments use are rarely completely successful. Resistance is fertile.

What can be done?

It is vital to make citizens aware that their rights to privacy and freedom of speech exist and these right need to be protected, both online and offline. This is key, as is the need for legislation that protects the public from government violation of these rights and the wider role of digital technology in governance and democracy, for which there is much excellent research on from the Making All Voices Count project.

To date, there has been very little systematic research on who exactly is using which tools, tactics and techniques to diminish citizens’ digital rights in Africa. Without a clear definition of the problem, it is impossible to craft effective solutions. In its first year, the African Digital Rights Network has begun this process, alongside its member networks the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Paradigm Initiative (PIN). We are now focusing on surveillance, disinformation and internet shutdowns – all identified as priorities in the country reports – and are expanding our network to include additional countries and expertise.

This article was originally published by Open Democracy as part of its Human Rights and Internet series

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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