Nathaniel Luz: The Need For Digital And Internet Freedom In Africa

We’ve been witnesses to frequent government shutdown of the internet in several parts of Africa in recent years. Earlier this year, it was Cameroon, and just recently, Ethiopia. It is however necessary to remind one another as well as relevant authorities that Internet Freedom is a fundamental human right, and should not be hindered or denied for any reason whatsoever.

One major benefit of the internet is decentralization. The social media has decentralized communication and made communicating across the globe much easier, cheaper and quality. The internet has increased opportu­nities to create, obtain and share knowledge globally at such an amazing speed, propelling innovation and development and helping many young entrepreneurs to market and trade across conventional barriers. Several shifts in power that have been recorded across the globe are tightly connected to increased internet access.

Freedom of expression is non-negotiable in a democratic society. The Dalberg report on the Economic Impact of Internet Openness states that: “The Internet makes education more accessible, opening up opportunities for distance learning (which in most cases is free).” Today, thousands of libraries, training programs, and open university courses are available online to millions of users across the globe. Resources like the Khan Academy – a non-profit website that offers high-quality educational videos and comprehensive learning programs for free to anyone anywhere in the world – have emerged as powerful Internet tools that are changing the way students learn and interact. Khan Academy videos are hosted on YouTube, which has enabled the organization to grow rapidly. But access to YouTube has been blocked at various times in many countries, preventing users from accessing these educational videos. Moreover, in places where citizens do not have access to the Internet at all—likely the places where free educational resources are most needed—or where speeds are too slow, people cannot take advantage of educational resources like the Khan Academy.

The free arena for the ex­change of ideas that the internet allows poses threats to several governments all over the world, and as a result, serious efforts are being made to re­strict people’s freedom on the internet freedom through censoring, websites blocking, and sometimes total internet shutdowns.

The shutdown and restoration of the internet at the government’s will in any country, causes a direct harm to business transactions, and is also a clampdown on the rights of internet users. It will drain a lot of money from the economy, besides undermining citizens’ rights to impart and seek information. Restrictions on the Internet can also have a chilling effect on investment, making a country less attractive to foreign investors.

The internet is an indispensable tool for promoting social justice and political liberty, used by citizens worldwide to fight for their rights, demand accountability, and amplify marginalized voices. While WhatsApp has also served as an important tool enabling organized civic activism, giving space for political activists and citizen journalists through private encrypted WhatsApp groups to share community information and strategies to influence local government decisions, several individuals were arrested in Zimbabwe in 2016, for online activities, particularly for WhatsApp messages that criticized aging President Mugabe. The Angolan constitution provides for freedom of expression and the press, though in practice, the authorities routinely flout these rights. New legislation passed in August 2016 empowers the government with the ability to control social media and penalize online speech. The examples above, from the Freedom On The Net Report, are just two of the several instances of harassment and intimidation of internet users by governments in Africa, meanwhile the continent is still the least connected on the planet.

Are these governments aware of the losses made daily and the frustrations that arise from such actions of theirs?

Individuals, Civil societies and Governments should adopt the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, to ensure that the Internet is safe and secure for individuals to engage, and from which they can create and consume content and applications for their social, economic and civic empowerment.

Civil societies should intensify resistance to internet shutdowns by oppressive and authoritarian governments. One major method is the propagation of circumvention tools citizens can take advantage of when such cases arise.

According the Digital Rights in Africa Report 2016 by Paradigm Initiative, “Africa is already behind on many development indices but the internet presents perhaps a chance to bridge many of those gaps through the access it grants to life changing information, communications, education, opportunities, and its role in the development of the political space. Those who constrain Internet freedoms should be seen as adversaries of development – something Africa needs in a hurry.”

Free­dom of expression today is greater online than offline in most countries. It is therefore important that we mobilize against individuals and institutions that seek to reduce or take away this fundamental right, thereby preventing people from several opportunities. Digital freedom is highly essential, and as other liberties, should be upheld and protected as we work towards a free society devoid of government interference in people’s lives.

Nathaniel Luz is a Local Coordinator at ASFL and he is passionate about digital & internet freedom. You can connect with him via, or on twitter @Nathaniel_Luz.