Internet Freedom in Africa Improved in 2023 … Nigeria, Malawi Record Largest Gains, Says Freedom House

Michael Abramowitz
President of Freedom House

Internet freedom in Africa improved overall in 2023, with Nigeria and Malawi recording the most substantial improvements during the year as individuals in both countries faced fewer and less severe legal penalties for their online activities, according to a new report released by Freedom House, an international non-profit research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., in the United States.

But South Africa recorded the highest aggregate score and retained its status as the only African country that is ranked as “Free”.      

Nigeria and Malawi scored 60 points each on 100-point scale, but both countries saw the largest score improvements as each of them gained 3 points, with individuals in the two countries reportedly facing fewer and less severe legal penalties for their online activities.

The report, titled:  “Freedom on the Net 2023: The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence”, the latest in the Freedom House annual survey and analysis of internet and digital media freedom around the world, said nine countries on the African continent recorded net gains in digital freedom while five countries experienced declines.

The 2023 report, the 13th in the series of annual reports since Freedom House began measuring internet freedom around the world in 2011, covered developments that took place between June 1, 2022, and May 31, 2023.

It found that despite the overall improvements in internet freedom on the continent, African internet users, especially in areas affected by armed conflict, still encountered digital repression. 

The report said governments and political parties in Angola and Kenya sought to manipulate the digital sphere during electoral periods, affecting online freedom for ordinary people in those countries.

It also noted that although blocks on social media platforms were imposed less frequently than in previous years, the Ethiopian and Ugandan governments continued to impose restrictions to repress government criticism.

The report said Ethiopia remained the lowest-scoring country on the continent, scoring 26 on Freedom on the Net’s 100-point scale as its government enacted new connectivity restrictions that left residents of conflict-affected areas in the dark.

It also reported that people were arrested for their political and online social activity in 16 of the 17 African countries covered in the report, except for South Africa.  South Africa recorded the highest aggregate score of 73 points and retained its status as the only African country that is ranked as “Free”.

According to the report, in Sudan, the conflict between military and paramilitary forces that began in April undermined internet freedom as online journalists and activists saw a sharp increase in threats and physical violence from both sides while reporting on the conflict.

It said Internet freedom remained restricted in North Africa with Tunisia, which had a score of 59, continuing to witness attacks against online expression following President Kaïs Saïed’s 2021 seizure of power.

The report identified Angola, with 59 points; Egypt, with 28 points; Kenya, with 66 points; and Tunisia, with 59 as tied for the largest score decline in the period covered as each country lost 2 points on Freedom on the Net’s 100-point scale.

It also found that while advances in artificial intelligence (AI) offer benefits for society, they have been used to increase the scale and efficiency of digital repression.

Freedom House said:  “Governments are leveraging automated systems to strengthen their information controls and hone forms of online censorship. Simultaneously, distributors of disinformation have turned to AI tools to fabricate images, audio, and text, further blurring the lines between reality and deception.”

Freedom on the Net is an annual study of human rights in the digital sphere with the project assessing internet freedom in 70 countries, which account for almost 89 percent of the world’s internet users.

More than 85 analysts and advisers are reported by Freedom House to have contributed to this year’s edition, using a standard methodology to determine each country’s internet freedom score on a 100-point scale, with 21 separate indicators pertaining to obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.