AFEX Report says Citizens Voices are Growing Online Despite Repression

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Felicia Anthonio, AFEX Cordinator
Felicia Anthonio, AFEX Cordinator

The African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) says  despite restrictions to the right to freedom of expression and other human rights online in 2017 as a result of the activities of state and non-state actors, citizens continued to make their voices heard. In its  Annual Report on the State of Internet Freedom in Africa for 2017, AFEX noted that  Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in countries across the continent continued to advocate for digital rights, with the Nigerian CSOs providing clear leadership in this area.

In a statement issued in Accra, Ghana, AFEX said although the study covered only 12 countries on the continent, the findings of the report painted an unflattering picture of increased threats to Internet freedom from diverse sources in the countries studied.

It said: “However, two other major themes are also apparent from the report.  The first is the desire of citizens to have their voices heard on a broad range of governance and social issues resulting in greater expression of dissenting views, despite the daunting challenges.

“Perhaps, buoyed by the need to create a counter-narrative to the harsh regulatory and policy environment, civil society actors were responsible for a marked increase across different countries in advocacy for digital rights and freedoms, with Nigerian civil society organizations providing clear leadership in this area. Their successful campaign in support of a Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, which is awaiting presidential assent, having been passed by the Nigerian National Assembly is a key milestone.”

AFEX Coordinator, Ms Felicia Anthonio said: “While AFEX commends the efforts being made by some governments across the continent to ensure that citizens have access to an open, free and reliable internet environment, we reiterate that governments and stakeholders across the continent have a duty to protect and uphold citizens’ rights to access and use the Internet.”

According to the Report, there were a total of 36 incidents of attacks on digital rights recorded in 2017 in the countries studied in which online expression was criminalised through arrest and detentions, prison terms or fines. Ironically, Nigeria recorded the highest number with 13 such incidents in which online expression was criminalized under the country’s Cybercrimes Act, the report revealed.

The Report said nine incidents of Internet blackout were recorded in seven countries with some countries such as Cameroon experiencing multiple shutdowns. It revealed that internet shutdowns were used especially during important events like elections, protests, terrorist attacks or national emergencies to silence dissent and critical voices as well as to curtail the rights to freedom of assembly and association.

According to it, countries that experienced internet shutdowns included: Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Togo and Nigeria.

Security agents, ruling and opposition politicians, media regulatory bodies and individuals were identified as the perpetrators of the majority of violations recorded. The Report also observed that most of the victims of the various incidents of violations did not receive any form of redress.

Remarks critical of government officials or members of the ruling class were frequently the reason for the violations of the rights of citizens online, according to the Report. Often interpreted as attempts to incite the public against the ruling class, such expression of dissenting views was often greeted with high handedness from the political class, it further said.

Interestingly, the Report indicated that individual members of the public were also found culpable in a lot of the instances of online rights abuse. Individuals were said to have initiated trolling, revenge pornography, hacking, threats and intimidation against others for exercising their rights to freedom of expression online.

For instance, it cited Ghana where, although did not record incidents of government interference in online activities, individuals perpetrated a majority of the recorded violations against other individuals.

Nonetheless, the Report noted that significant progress has been made in a number of countries on the continent towards safeguarding Internet rights and freedoms.