Nigeria: How African Govts Use Repressive Laws in the Digital Age

14 November 2018

We live in a fast-changing world, and the digital rights and media freedom landscape are not immune to that. There are many examples of this incidence, but perhaps none is as evident as the rising tide of nations claiming national sovereignty over the internet.

Perhaps taking a cue from the massive Chinese internet firewall, many countries around the world have begun to push for more control of the internet within their borders. Apart from risking and jeopardizing the inherent international, cross-border and open nature of the internet, many of these developments come as part of a strategy to threaten digital rights in these nations.

The shocking withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council is another symptom of the odd times we are in. The United States' withdrawal has left a vacuum in this vital United Nations organ which strives for human rights worldwide. Beyond the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United States has lost some of its moral authority as an arbiter and defender of global human rights as a result of happenings within its own borders. These developments have emboldened hitherto repressive, but hesitant, state actors into acts that brazenly attempt to restrict human rights online and offline.

In Africa, we are concerned that Egypt, a leading repressive state on the continent, was a leading proponent of new changes to the United Nations Human Rights Council's "Internet Resolution" which affirmed that the same rights that people enjoyed offline should also be protected online. The key paragraph reflecting Egypt's influence reads:

"Expressing concern at the increasing use, in a globalized society, by terrorists and their supporters, of information and communications technologies, and noting in this regard that the prevention and suppression of terrorism is a public interest of great importance, while reaffirming that States must ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism are in compliance with their obligations under international law, in particular, international human rights law, international refugee law, and international humanitarian law... "

Although the statement seems couched to protect national security, the reality is that in states such as Egypt, the definition of who a terrorist is quite hazy and could easily include critics of government. This has indeed been the reality in Egypt which has clamped down hard on the opposition and civil society groups using legislation and policies crafted specifically for that purpose.

The increasing influence of China and Russia in global affairs is definitely changing perceptions about the thresholds of what is acceptable or not in human rights standards. Even more so, it would seem many African countries have begun to borrow a leaf from repressive foreign governments' playbooks for violating digital rights. The past two years have revealed a growing sophistication among repressive governments in Africa to not just use typical State-sponsored violence to beat citizens into submission. African governments have also now begun using "Rule of Law" tactics - drafting and passing legislation and policies which can be used to stifle freedom of expression, privacy, and other digital rights.

That is the thrust of Paradigm Initiative's 2018 Digital Rights in Africa report. The 2016 and 2017 editions of the Digital Rights in Africa Report cast a spotlight on Internet Shutdowns and Citizens fightback against digital rights abuses respectively. The 3rd edition (2018) however focuses on how governments across Africa have transitioned from solely brutal tactics of arrests, Internet and social media app disruptions, and imprisonment to more refined, subtle and apparently "legal" approaches - or those that supposedly respect the "rule of law" - in stifling digital rights in Africa.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Morocco, and Tanzania, African governments have begun to roll out legislation and policies which enforce privacy violations, infringements to freedom of expression, access restrictions and hurt other digital rights. The 2018 Digital Rights in Africa Report examines this trend across Africa and discusses the way forward for civil society as we continue in the fight for digital rights and freedoms on the continent. This report highlights 8 countries across North, East, West and Central Africa where critical developments in the legal or policy space have conspired to hurt digital rights.

These countries are Uganda, Tanzania, Egypt, Morocco, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Benin, and Nigeria. The report will be launched on November 13, 2018, at the Internet Governance Forum in Paris, where a panel of Internet freedom experts drawn from the across the continent will discuss its results. Beyond the Internet Governance Forum, however, we hope that the report will serve as a resource material for journalists, human rights advocates, researchers, and policymakers, as we strive to keep aflame the embers of Internet freedom in Africa.

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