Fri, Nov 10, 2017 - Page 9 News List

African struggle for freedom has moved to the digital domain

By Kizito Byenkya and Alex Humphrey

Much to the dismay of the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa, “Zone 9” has become a household name in the country.

Since 2012, this small group of journalists-turned-online activists has used social media to campaign for political freedoms and civil liberties in their country.

The group’s success — measured, for example, by the flood of likes and comments on its Facebook page — has come in spite of government efforts to silence the writers, including the arrest of six members in 2014 on trumped-up terrorism charges.

Ethiopia’s government is not alone in seeking to consolidate political power by restricting what citizens say online.

Across Africa, governments are enacting legislation to restrict Internet access and outlaw criticism of elected officials. Digital campaigners face myriad censorship tactics, including “border gateway protocol” attacks, “http throttling,” and “deep packet inspections.”

The irony, of course, is that censorship rarely quiets the disaffected. Rather than quelling dissent, government intervention only inspires more people to take their grievances to WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, where Africans are increasingly challenging corrupt governments, exposing rigged elections and demanding to be heard.

However, at the moment, few of Africa’s leaders are listening.

Leaders in nine of the 18 African countries that held elections last year placed some level of restriction on the Internet to limit dissent.

Four days prior to Uganda’s presidential vote in February, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni cut access to mobile payment services and social media sites. In August and September, Gabonese President Ali Bongo, seeking to project an atmosphere of calm to the international community, shut down Internet access overnight.

In December, officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ordered an Internet shutdown the day before Congolese President Joseph Kabila was scheduled to leave office, thereby quashing online dissent when he refused to step down.

Internet blackouts like these violate people’s human rights and undermine democratic processes.

Last year, the UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution affirming that “rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.”

Most African governments try to justify Internet embargoes by arguing that the restrictions are necessary to ensure public safety and security. Museveni, for example, claimed that blocking Internet access was the only way to protect visiting heads of state during his swearing-in ceremony.

However, he presented no evidence linking social media accessibility and security in Uganda, or anywhere else.

People typically feel less secure without the Internet, because they cannot access information or connect with friends and family in times of uncertainty, said Access Now, an international advocacy group for digital rights.

With several key African elections coming up, Internet shutdowns are again on the horizon.

In Zimbabwe, where 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe is expected to run for his eighth term in the middle of next year, a government-led crackdown appears inevitable.

For decades, Mugabe has relied on intimidation and violence to stifle political dissent. It is not surprising, then, that he has already begun taking a hostile approach to online activism.

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