Policy Brief 8: Censorship of the Internet, social media rising in Africa

African governments are increasingly clamping down on internet, social media and messaging applications in attempts to silence democratic opposition, civil society and activists’ mobilisation against poor governance expressed through these platforms.

New technology, the internet and social media make it increasingly possible for Africans across the continent to distribute and receive alternative sources of information to government propaganda, disinformation and secrecy. Since their independence many African governments have monopolised old media, such as state-owned newspapers, public broadcasters and radio stations that gives a biased view of what is happening in their countries.

Governments in Africa have frequently manipulated the flow of information, either disseminating their propaganda through state-owned media or by withholding information that would show their citizens the true state of their incompetence, misrule and corruption. Perceived government critics, opposition and civil society groups have often been sidelined, vilified and projected in the dominant state-owned media as lacking credibility or being in the pay of Western and former colonial powers.

It has meant that ordinary African citizens frequently have not got the full picture, truth or alternative perspectives of the performance of their governments. This means  that given the fact that the vast majority of people in most African countries,  who are likely to be poor, illiterate and lack access to quality information  with which to make informed decisions. They have no other choice but to accept government excuses, denials and cover-ups of poor governance, corruption and wastage.

Fighting for democracy with new media

New sources of alternative information, which are becoming available to Africans across the continent, are breaking the stronghold on the information flow by undemocratic African governments and leaders, and are becoming a powerful force for better African governance in the future.

The battle to bring quality democracy, inclusive development and peace to Africa is currently being, and will increasingly be, waged on mobile phones, the Internet and social media.

New technology, such as mobile phones, has allowed for new media platforms, especially where old media platforms have been firmly controlled by governments. The rise of the mobile phone has opened new ways to produce and distribute independent information to mass audiences in Africa, normally only accessed by government media. According to a 2014 Ericson Mobility Report on Sub-Saharan Africa, the use of the mobile phone was predicted to increase 20-fold in the next five years, about double that in other parts of the world.

Given Africa’s poor landline infrastructure and unreliability of electricity supply, most Africans use mobile phones to access the internet and social media. The increasing affordability of handsets and data, and faster transmission speeds has meant that many more Africans can now go online.

Social media, the internet and messaging applications are giving ordinary Africans a far greater voice than they have ever had before. In civic life, public participation and decision-making the use of new media has given many Africans a means to hold governments and leaders accountable, to shape policies and to push for improved governance.

The internet and social media is also increasingly influencing not just the traditional media – print, newspapers, radio stations and public broadcasters. They are also influencing national public political discourse. Ugandan journalist Ivan Okuba last year pointed out how posts on social media about a pending Cabinet reshuffle not only set the coverage in traditional media, but also got President Yoweri Museveni to produce evidence to the contrary on social media.

In August this year Zimbabweans, using the internet and social media staged a national shutdown over the autocratic leadership, mismanagement and corruption of the 92-year old President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF government.

Anti-corruption activist, Pastor Evan Mawarire launched the hashtag #ThisFlag on Zimbabwe’s Independence Day in April.  This become a rallying point for many opposing Mugabe. Zimbabwean activists used a number of hashtags, including the #ThisFlag, #ZimbabweShutdown and #ShutDownZim on Facebook, Twitter, and  the social messaging service WhatsApp to coordinate the protests.

When violent unrests engulfed Mozambique in 2010, the local state-owned media gave it limited coverage.. However, activists in the blogosphere,  on social media and online sites brought the story into the mainstream, not only in Mozambique, but globally..

During the 2011 elections and, even more so in 2016, Ugandans extensively used social media to debate issues and mobilise opposition to the government. The hashtag #UgandaDecides became a platform for ordinary Ugandans to criticise the Uganda President Yoweri Museveni and his government. During the 2016 election campaign many Ugandans used the hashtag#1986pictures with tweets of pictures taken 30-years ago, comparing it to the current situation, to show that “in 30 years, everything has changed in Uganda except the president”.

The North African “Arab Spring” protests of 2011 and 2012 by young people against corrupt ruling parties and leaders are cases in point. Young people used social media, the internet and blogs to “gather and organise protests or support movements to make their voices heard in ways that were not possible before. Previously they were often barred from official state media.

During the 2007 elections in Sierra Leone, Ian Schuler of the National Democratic Institute wrote that civil society election observers used SMS messages  to convey what was happening at polling stations to a central receiver, where it could be analysed and any irregularities could be responded to. In 2008, during the violence that swept Kenya following the disputed elections, citizens were able to report incidents of violence using text messages via the Ushaidi platform to a central server where it could be viewed across the world as it happened.

 Suppressing social media

A number of African governments and their leaders, acutely aware of the liberating power of the Internet and social media, are increasingly censoring both these platforms and those using them. Online publications are routinely closed down, and bloggers and social media activists are increasingly imprisoned for criticising African governments. Several African governments are monitoring and intercepting email and internet communications in a bid to stifle opposition views from being disseminated widely.

In many African countries social media platforms are controlled by state-owned companies or, if in private hands, under the thumb of the state, who threaten to revoke their trading licenses if they do not comply with state directives.  For example Ethio Telecom, the state-owned telecommunications monopoly in Ethiopia has been regularly accused of interrupting connectivity during periods of political protests. Similarly, in Eritrea, the internet is strictly controlled by the state-owned company, EriTel, and all ISPs are obliged to use the government gateway.

Earlier this year Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe claimed that the opposition was “abusing” social media and the Internet to undermine the government.  He said that Zimbabwe had got the Chinese to put in security measures so that these abuses could be halted.

Zimbabwean activists campaigned through the internet, social media and SMS’s for a total shutdown of the country on 6 July 2016. On the morning of 6 July 2016, WhatsApp, which accounts for 34% of Internet data in that country, was down. Activists believed it was deliberately blocked by the Zimbabwean government, who denied the allegation.

The Ethiopian government has regularly blocked social media during political protests, to prevent social media to be used to coordinate anti-government protests.

In April this year, governing party MPs in Egypt proposed enacting new laws to “contain the dangers of Facebook”, claiming comments critical of government made by Egyptians on social media threatens “national security.

In 2015, Egypt blocked Facebook’s “Free Basics” Internet service because the company declined to give the government access to the accounts of users. The Egyptian government has arrested a number of activists for making critical comments on social media.

Ahead of the February 2016 presidential elections in Uganda the government shut down social media. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni claimed that the social shutdown was to “avert lies” and to prevent the incitement of violence.. This also happened during the 2011 elections.

Last year the Mozambican government slapped criminal charges against Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco and Fernando Mbanze over a Facebook post in 2013 which they criticised the country’s former President Armando Guebuza. In May this year, the independent Jornal a Verdade reported that the Mozambican government was “reading” the SMS, email, WhatsApp, Facebook and Viber messages and monitoring the Internet sites citizens visited.

In Sudan Internet speeds are regularly reported to slow down during periods of political upheaval, with critics charging that the government was deliberately slowing connectivity. Independent online news outlets are regularly hacked, online news sites blocked and journalists and activists using social media frequently arrested, especially those exposing official corruption or who are critical of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his government..

The Sudanese government has also clamped down on websites it deemed “violating” Muslim “norms” and “threatening Sudanese ethics and culture”. In 2011, the Sudanese government established a special internet and social media surveillance unit called the “Cyber Jihadist Unit” to spy on government critics, human rights activists, journalists and opposition parties.

In May 2016, the Nigerian government withdrew its Cybercrime Act 2015, following strong civil society complaints that it undermines freedom of expression.

Action needed

African autocratic regimes have fallen thanks to the activism of ordinary citizens through the new platforms of mobile phones, the Internet and social media. It is not surprising that there are attempts to restrict these platforms. African governments have imported sophisticated equipment to censor the internet, social media and message systems and intercept communications from journalists, critics and activists. Some of the equipment has been imported from China, as in the case of Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. But equipment procured from Western nations – such as Italy in the case of Sudan, and Germany and the UK, in the case of Ethiopia – is also used by anti-democratic African governments and their leaders.

Civil society, the media and international human rights organisations must put pressure on Chinese and Western governments and companies to discourage them selling cyberspace censorship equipment to African countries.

In June 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned countries shutting down access to the Internet saying the clampdown on anti-government criticisms were a “violation of international human rights law”. The United Nations has rightly stressed the importance of “applying a comprehensive human rights-based approach when providing and expanding access to the Internet and for the Internet to be open, accessible and nurtured by multi-stakeholder participation”.

To boost democracy, inclusive development and peace, African regional bodies such as the African Union, and international ones, such as the UN, must introduce stronger measures against African leaders and governments who censor social media, activists and the Internet, in order to muzzle opposition against poor democratic governance.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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