Recently, public outrage trailed a bill on the floor of the Nigerian senate proposing state action towards social media censorship and a death sentence for hate speech. Lately, the undemocratic acts of internet censorship, which is an infringement on freedom of expression, seems to be an African phenomenon.
In 2018, 21 African countries either shut down the internet or restricted access to certain websites in the purported attempt to prevent the spread of fake news and hate speech. But with the exponential increase in the number of internet users in Africa since 2000, this action has only succeeded in hurting telecom and internet-reliant businesses.
It also leaves citizens with expensive, and sometimes, illegitimate alternatives to accessing the internet. The 2019 internet restriction by the Zimbabwean government, for instance, coerced citizens to switch to Virtual Private Networks that help in securing connections to network over the internet, in order to access state-restricted websites. Thus, allowing citizens to have access to the internet in the wake of internet shutdowns in the country. Also, internet censorship has sparked a handful of public agitations such as the #TogoDebout, #IAmTheSudanRevolution, and #BringBackOurInternet campaigns in Togo, Sudan, and Cameroon respectively.
These agitations, meanwhile, are only portraying African countries as despotic. The increase subscription to social media among Africans across the continent avails citizens and civil groups a relatively easier medium for expressing their discontent with the government.
It also establishes their rights to peaceful assembly, and protest. Thus, to bar citizens from accessing the internet is to disregard the tenets of democracy, which if sustained, could bring Africa back to the era of dictatorship. More so, internet shutdown will badly hurt perpetrating countries rather than help. This is because many businesses heavily relying on the internet to keep afloat. A 2016 report by the Brookings Institution revealed that the global economy lost $2.4 billion as a result of disruptions in internet connections.
This, unfortunately, attests to how influential the internet has become to the survival of an economy. African leaders would be wrong to censor it blindly.
Civil societies, meanwhile, should set out to remind governments of their obligation to respect individual rights and freedoms, especially the freedom of speech. They should push for laws to protect citizens’ rights, not take them away in the spirit of curbing fake news and hate speech. They should, also rather organize sensitization programs to educate citizens on their consequences.
Access to the internet is a fundamental right. Africans, like every other human community in a rapidly globalizing world, deserve to express their opinion regardless of how critical they might sound.
Haleed Sulemana is a Public Speaker and a Writing Fellow at African Liberty. He can be reached on Twitter via @Haleed_Nemo.