The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Commissioner Lawrence Mute, has advocated the establishment of programmes to support universal access to the internet in Africa pointing out that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ has urged States to “respect and take legislative and other measures to guarantee, respect and protect citizen’s right to freedom of information and expression through access to internet services”.
Commissioner Mute submitted the report to the 65th Ordinary Session of the African Commission in his capacities as the Vice-Chairperson of the Commission and as the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (Special Rapporteur) and covers the inter-session between the 64th and the 65th Ordinary Sessions, during the period May to October 2019.
The report was prepared pursuant to Rules 23(3) and 72 of the Rules of Procedure, 2010, of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Commission), which requires each of the Commission’s subsidiary mechanisms to present a report on its work at each ordinary session, and each Commissioner to submit a report on activities undertaken during the inter-session.
In his report, he also dealt with freedom of expression and access to information on the internet. Commissioner Mute holds that: “The internet is important in accelerating developmental goals as well as being a tool that facilitates various other rights, including freedom of expression and access to information. Online platforms have become popular fora for social and public discourses among people – giving them voice, allowing them to access information and enhancing media diversity.”
He painted a grim picture of internet situation in Africa, saying as the internet continues to gain power and agency around the world, and some African States have resorted to deliberate shutdowns.
Expatiating on the situation, he said “Internet shutdown is the disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.” Internet shutdowns, he remarked, make it impossible for journalists to publish content and for the public to freely express themselves on online platforms, adding, they impede the right to access information and limit citizens’ engagements in public discourse.
Commissioner Mute noted that States are increasingly justifying internet shutdowns as a means for curbing the spread of disinformation, misinformation and mal-information, when in fact, internet shutdowns undermine the option of proactive responses to the spread of falsehoods and incorrect information while at the same time curtailing the exercise of a host of cross-cutting rights by individuals.
Considering the importance of the internet, he disclosed that he continues to welcome and encourage positive innovations and interventions which aim to ensure its full universal access in Africa, and in particular, welcomed the initiative of South Africa’s online and media industry which are urging the State to take specific measures to ensure full universal internet access. Including: the implementation of free access to the internet at State sites; the 0-rating of access to Government websites and databases; the provision of free Wi-Fi access as a basic service like electricity and water for the poor; and the institution of digital literacy programmes.
He pointed out that many of their proposals have merit for consideration and adaptation for use in other countries on the continent.
He expressed concern over the continuing trend of internet shutdowns around Africa implemented to undermine communications in the contexts of elections, civil actions and significant national events such as the administration of national examinations and elections. He listed various incidents of internet shutdowns during election in Democratic Republic of Congo, Benin Republic, Malawi, Mauritania, and Garbon, etc.