Fri, Nov 10, 2017 - Page 9 News List

African struggle for freedom has moved to the digital domain

By Kizito Byenkya and Alex Humphrey

Last year, his government shut down the Internet in the middle of political protests and vowed to arrest anyone caught generating or sharing “abusive or subversive material on social media.”

However, citizens are not helpless. While governments issue orders to cut off Internet access, only telecommunications companies have the ability to hit the “kill switch.”

That is why Africa’s bloggers and online activists must work more closely with investors and shareholders of communications firms to convince them to stand up for democracy and human rights by resisting illiberal government directives.

Moreover, civil-society groups, the African Union and the UN should do more to condemn national legislation that aims to normalize restrictive Internet policies.

Just as it launched a model law on access to information in 2013, the African Union should provide new guidance to states on how to safeguard the right to assemble and express views online.

Finally, new continent-wide measures are needed to ensure that Africans’ online rights are recognized and respected by their governments.

Although the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution to protect online freedoms is not binding, it offers a starting point for ensuring that governments allow citizens to use the Internet as a tool to maximize political participation.

Such interventions are needed now more than ever. The Kenyan, Zimbabwean and Ethiopian legislatures are considering laws that would permit significantly greater government control over Internet access. Last year, Tanzania adopted legislation that has already been used to charge people who have criticized Tanzanian President John Magufuli on social media with crimes.

Whether governments bar citizens from gathering in public, signing petitions or accessing the Internet and posting on social media makes no difference. All such measures are designed to strip citizens of their rights.

The battle for freedom, as Zone 9 has shown, is no less real when the public square is the digital domain.

Kizito Byenkya is a senior program specialist at the Open Society Human Rights Initiative. Alex Humphrey is a policy associate at the Open Society Foundations.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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