Media Defence Publishes Report on Mapping Digital Rights and Online Freedom of Expression Litigation in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Alinda Vermeer
Chief Executive Officer of Media Defence

The London, United Kingdom-based Media Defence, an international human rights organisation that provides legal defence to journalists, citizen journalists and independent media around the world that are threatened for their reporting, has published a research report on online freedom of expression litigation titled ‘Mapping Digital Rights and Online Freedom of Expression in East, West and Southern Africa’ which maps laws relating to digital rights, tracks the status of related litigation, highlights opportunities for further efforts to advance the field.

The report reflects on developments in the field of digital rights in Africa against the backdrop of a number of prominent themes, with a particular focus on legislation and litigation introduced since the publication of the original report in 2018.

It serves as an update and thematic review of some of the critical topics in digital rights litigation in East, West and Southern Africa, providing an overview of developments in jurisprudence, legislation and practice in the past three years, and highlighting lessons learned to further advance digital rights in the region going forward.

The report starts with an overview of the digital rights landscape and an introduction to the research methodology, before delving into recent developments in seven themes of particular relevance at present. These themes are defamation, national security, counter-terrorism and public order laws, laws restricting online content and access, internet shutdowns, cybercrime legislation, media regulation and newsgathering activities, and data protection.  

Following the review, high-level trends and themes are extracted through a jurisprudential trends analysis, which maps out some of the most significant court cases in digital rights in East, West, and Southern Africa since 1994.  The review demonstrates the progress made in multiple areas of digital rights and freedom of expression online across the region, while also highlighting gaps and areas where further litigation might be fruitful.

The report finds that some landmark judgments have been achieved that significantly advance digital rights and freedom of expression online on the continent, such as those condemning internet shutdowns, invalidating excessive surveillance practices, and overturning criminal defamation laws.

Despite growing global condemnation, internet shutdowns also continue to be used to stifle criticism, stymie social protest, and even undermine electoral processes.

The review demonstrates that much remains to be done to build a strong and rights-respecting framework for the regulation of the online sphere in East, West, and Southern Africa. Strategic litigation has played, and should continue to play, a crucial role in advancing some of these key developments – but must, importantly, be bolstered through research, advocacy, and educational campaigns so as to meaningfully realise digital rights for all persons in the region.

Interested persons should go online to Download the Report.