Internet Freedom Report Details Rights Abuses in African Countries in COVID-19 Context

Wairagala Wakabi, Executive Director, CIPESA
Wairagala Wakabi, Executive Director, CIPESA

The fight to contain the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is hurting digital rights in Africa, according to the report of a new study released in September, which documents the harms to digital rights and their effects as experienced in various countries on the continent.

Titled “State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2020:  Resetting Digital Rights Amidst The Covid-19 Fallout”, the 49-page report calls on governments to review and revise broad and vague COVID-19 related legislation and other laws that restrict freedom of expression, especially those on fake news, disinformation and misinformation, to ensure they are either repealed or amended to meet the internationally acceptable three-part test of being lawful, necessary and proportionate.

The report, issued by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), noted that measures introduced by some governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as mass surveillance, content moderation to prevent misinformation, contact tracing, and online tracking present new challenges and have significant repercussions for freedom of expression, privacy, access to information, assembly and association.

According to the report, as a result of such measures, there is growing tension between the protection of public health and the protection and promotion of civil liberties, with one of the key challenges to digital rights, especially privacy and personal data protection, being the tracking and monitoring of people’s movements, communications and health data by governments aided by private companies and humanitarian bodies.

The report stated that technologies for mass surveillance have been deployed to collect and process troves of call data records, social media data, and phone location data while there is also usage of contact tracing mobile applications that allow for analysis of data and tracking of the movement of people and their interactions.

It noted that a number of these measures breach the right to privacy, lack sufficient oversight, and do not respect existing data protection principles.

The report said “while some governments have proactively disseminated information on the pandemic, others have been complicit in spreading disinformation about the pandemic, while many others have set up units to fight disinformation”, adding that a related concern has been the adoption by some governments of draconian laws to curb the spread of misinformation, which has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression and access to information.

It criticized what it described as the “widespread absence of transparency, accountability, and legal oversight over the emergency measures, many of which are disproportionate and have fallen short of international human rights standards and rule of law.”

The report also highlighted some positive measures since the emergence of the pandemic, citing telecommunication companies such as the MTN, Airtel, Vodafone among others in various African countries that have reduced or in some cases waived the cost of data bundles, online transactions and electronic payments.

It noted that some Internet Service Providers also discounted internet subscription fees and invested further to increase internet access.

The report said the fight against COVID-19 has had a fundamental impact on digital rights and freedoms, including undermining civic participation and, in many countries, deepening the democracy deficit.

It predicted that such effects are likely to persist even after the pandemic is contained unless remedial actions are taken by all relevant stakeholders.

The report proposed numerous “priority actions” by the Government, ICT Companies, Media, and Civil Society to remedy the situation.

It called on governments to respect and promote the role of the media and journalists as a critical source of information and engagement for the public, urging it to end the abuse of cybercrime laws to target government critics, journalists and social media users, through arrests, threats, harassment, and intimidation. ogrammes, including under universal service and access funds, to expand public access to the internet, particularly to enhance digital inclusion for marginalised and underserved groups, communities and areas.

It asked governments to adopt laws, policies and practices to promote digital inclusion, including the zero-rating or reduction of costs of internet-enabled devices, removal of internet taxes, promotion and establishment of internet infrastructure development and digital literacy programmes.

The report also proposed the establishment of legal and policy measures that ensure accountability and transparency in data collection, storage and processing, adding that “governments should also put in place mechanisms to ensure personal data is secured and not misused by unscrupulous individuals during the crisis to violate human rights or implement systems for mass surveillance.”

It called on governments to sign and ratify the African Union Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection, as well as to issue transparency reports detailing their COVID-19 related surveillance activity, such as the tools and technologies used, state agencies and private entities involved, the number of persons whose data were tracked, the types of data collected, entities that accessed the data, and safeguards instituted to guard against misuse of the data and the surveillance apparatus.

The report advocated the reform of state surveillance programmes and publicly designate judicial authority to independently enforce due process safeguards at all times, given current limited judicial oversight over surveillance.