Why African Governments’ Ban on TikTok Threatens Digital Freedom

On the 2nd of August, 2023, news emerged that Senegal suspended access to a social media app, TikTok, until further notice. In another report, Somalia follows suit, and there have been efforts to do the same in Kenya, Uganda, and Egypt. The move by most of the African governments is not surprising; they love tightening their grip on social media platforms, imposing bans, and stifling digital freedom in the name of national security and control. 

However, contrary to their motives, the bans on TikTok and similar platforms are, in fact, a blatant violation of individual freedoms, and they represent a dangerous precedent for the suppression of online expression. TikTok’s ban is a sure encroachment on individual liberties. The platform has become a creative outlet for millions of Africans.

Rather than imposing blanket bans, governments should empower citizens with knowledge and tools to navigate the digital landscape safely.

While governments often justify their actions by citing concerns about harmful content, misinformation, or data security, it is essential to scrutinize those justifications and the broader implications they have on the fundamental rights of citizens. 

The freedom to express oneself and connect with others through social media is a fundamental aspect of digital freedom. It enables individuals to voice their opinions, share their creativity, and engage with global communities. Nigerian youth, for example, often use social media platforms to organize protests and express their views. Reference can be made to the usage of Twitter (now X) in 2020, in which Nigerian youths raised their voices on various social and political issues, majorly the #EndSARS movement, calling for an end to police brutality.

The above highlights the powerful role of social media in enabling African youth to mobilize and voice their concerns, pushing for change and government accountability. Thus, by imposing bans on platforms like TikTok, governments are effectively shutting down these avenues for expression and connectivity.

Furthermore, banning TikTok undermines the principles of a free and open internet, which is crucial for economic development, innovation, and exchanging ideas. In today’s interconnected world, digital platforms play a vital role in entrepreneurship, trade, and education. The creative industry has been revealed to be a significant source of employment in Africa, with different sectors such as digital creation, film, music, and fashion providing jobs for many young people. Also, According to UNESCO, the African creative enterprise generates $4.2 billion in revenue and employs at least 5 million people across the continent.

It is apparent that banning TikTok not only stifles creativity but also hampers economic opportunities for countless individuals, particularly young African entrepreneurs and content creators.

The argument that most of the bans by African governments are necessary for national security and to combat harmful content is deeply flawed. Instead of banning platforms outright, governments should focus on developing responsible ways to target specific issues while preserving freedom of expression. Social media companies can also play a role in implementing measures to tackle hate speech, fake news, and other problematic content.

A more libertarian approach to digital freedom involves trusting individuals to make informed decisions about the content they consume and share. It recognizes that personal responsibility and individual choice should be at the forefront of any decision regarding online activities. Rather than imposing blanket bans, governments should empower citizens with knowledge and tools to navigate the digital landscape safely.

While TikTok is primarily known for its entertainment content, some youths are always interested in using the platform for social activism and advocating for political change. According to research, TikTok has enough potential to make individuals leverage the platform to engage a wide audience and raise awareness about important social and political issues in their respective countries and across the continent.

The concerned African governments must reconsider the banning approach. The ban on TikTok by some African governments clearly indicates a growing threat to digital freedom on the continent. While concerns about content and security may be valid, an outright ban is not the solution. A libertarian perspective on digital freedom emphasizes individual liberty, personal responsibility, and fostering a free and open digital environment. It is time for African governments to reconsider their approach and prioritize the protection of civil liberties in the digital age.

Hammed J. Sulaiman is a graduate of law from Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. He is a Local Coordinator with Students For Liberty, who is currently enrolled in John Galt School, Nigeria. He is an ex-editorial assistant at African Liberty. Also, he is a member of the editorial team at The Liberalist. He can be reached at: hsulaiman@studentsforliberty.org.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash.