INTERNET CENSORSHIP AND VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHT: THREAT TO DIGITAL INCLUSION IN AFRICA

By:  Olusesan Michael AWOLEYE (M.Sc., UK; Ph.D., Nigeria)

 

INTRODUCTION

The interconnectedness that the Internet has brought to us has changed the way we live and work today. The Internet has provided the opportunity for social communication which includes but not limited to connecting with families, friends and other acquaintances. The Internet has also permeated innovativeness in business activities and this has facilitated convenience on platforms to enable users perform online transactions such as e-commerce, e-business and many aspects of e-Government activities (Awoleye et al, 2008) among other transactions within the cyberspace of developing countries. There are a vast number of extant literature on Internet services and applications that have reported the adoption, access, extent and the level of usage of ICTs in developing countries. For example, the Internet penetration (percentage) with corresponding Internet users (million) in five top African countries including Nigeria and South Africa stood at 83.0% in Kenya (43.3m), 80.9% in Liberia (4m), 70.1% in Seychelles (0.67m), 67.0% in Tunisia (7.9m), 63.4% in Mali (12.5m) and 55.5% in Nigeria (111m), 53.7% in the Republic of South Africa (31m) [1]. With this, it is obvious that the proportion of Internet penetration in Nigeria (55.5%) thus translates to over 111million Internet users. This is slightly higher than what obtains in all these other countries put together including South Africa. This thus put Nigeria in the forefront of Internet adoption as the highest Internet population in Africa. Despite these potentials and Internet growth witnessed around the developing countries, especially in the countries of Africa, some governments of these countries have been working against the advancement of the Internet thereby militating digital inclusion. Working contrary to the original design of the Internet (which was meant to be a free and open resource), devoid of any state, organisational and hierarchical deprivation (Subramanian, 2013) may retard developmental growth and efforts in the African continent. For example, the developmental programmes in Africa such as the Science, Technology Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA) 2024, Africa beyond 2030, Agenda 2063 sustainable development programmes among others may suffer set back. In an environment where there is no respect for human rights, corruption and insecurity are also likely to be the order of the day. This proposition has been somewhat established in literature, as Barkhouse, Hoyland  and Limon (2018) reiterated that successful realisation and implementation of developmental goals are dependent largely on good governance, transparency, participation, and accountability, which were noted as the cornerstones of anti-corruption policy. In addition, using Internet censorship as a tool by the political leaders to silence the voice of the people rather than use it as a tool to harness resources for development may be tantamount to breaking the core Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) treaties which consequence may militate the set goals for the development of the Africa region. It is in this context that some accounts have been duly documented in this write–up with the aim to creating awareness for individuals, researchers,  policy makers and other stakeholders as well as International organisations among others. Having a critical examination of the situation in due course may possibly guide against this menace degenerating into a situation capable of inhibiting the digital development of our nations in Africa. This is imperative now, much more as we are at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), Africa should not be left behind. The Internet is therefore the bedrock of the digital technologies which enables the operationalisation of the 4IR. To this end, limiting the capabilities of this technology by human deprivation as a result of intimidation and related vices should be abhorred.

 

INTERNET CENSORSHIP AND SHUTDOWNS

Over the last few years the African continent has witnessed more governments shutting down the free and open access to the Internet in order to push their political or other personal agenda. These shutdowns have caused economic damage and have hurt the citizens of the affected countries, as well as International businesses resident in the affected countries [2]. An estimated shutdown cost to affected countries around the world has been put at a whopping sum of $2.4 billion only in one year, between June 2015 and June 2016. These include but not limited to shutdowns in India, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Brazil which cost $968 million, $465 million, $320 million and $116 million respectively [3]. In the year 2016 for example, 11 cases of documented shutdowns were reported across Africa; this is in addition to an increasing number of legislations and policies that violate digital rights and Internet freedom (PIN, 2016). The case of Egypt was a total shutdown of both the Internet and mobile networks in 2011 against the entire country by the government (MacKinnon, et al. 2014) in an attempt to frustrate a protest in Cairo [4].

 

ACCOUNTS OF INTERNET DISRUPTIONS IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

Several cases of Internet shutdowns have been reported; freedom of expression and information has been violated; so also, access to services have been disrupted. The growth of Government Interferences to digital networks as reported by West (2016) stated that in 1995, one case of documented Internet disruption was reported which grew to 560 in 2010 within a space of 15years. For example, in 1996 Zambia was reported as the first case of Internet censorship in Sub-Saharan Africa, the government ordered a shutdown of a newspaper website with a supposed content that angered the government (ITU, 2009). The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the command of the state; disrupted and shut down the short message service in December 2011, which lasted for 25 days before it was restored. Furthermore, in 2015 the shutdown in the DRC did not only include the SMS but also the entire Internet but with exception to government agencies and banks; which lasted for three weeks before access was restored. The most recent Internet shutdown that happened in the DRC was dated December 19, 2016. All of these shutdowns were largely motivated on political grounds [5]. Also in Gambia, the government during the last election; ordered the immediate shutdown of Internet and International cell phone calls. In the same vein, the government of Cameroon in January 2017 had ordered the disruption of the Internet in the Southwest and Northwest administrative regions of the country, where English-speaking residents protested against language discrimination related to French language administration and court rulings. The human impact of this measure, economic losses due to the shutdown have been estimated at a minimum of USD 4.5 million within the period of 94 days (ISOC, 2017).

 

THE CASE OF NIGERIA

The Nigerian government has followed other developing countries in their approach to suppress critical voices of the people through the arrest of bloggers, journalists and other key Internet users (ITU, 2009). Mr. Deji Adeyanju and Mr. Omoyele Sowore were among the top two arrested in 2018 and 2019 respectively. The government claimed that their arrests, detainments, intimidations, and assaults were based on the premise of their expressions (on Twitter handles, Facebook pages, blogs, websites and other social media platforms) which supposedly contravened the country legislations. The government affirmed the arrest based on the provision in the Nigerian Cybercrime 2015 Act, section 24 (on cyberstalking) which infringes on human rights and citizens’ freedom online [6]. In addition to the activities of the Nigerian government militating human rights and violating Internet freedom, PIN (2016) also reported that in the Nigerian budget of 2016, the government spent a whopping sum of $40 million to acquire surveillance equipment to monitor the activities of her citizens on the Internet. Other sources also revealed that elsewhere across developing countries; gadgets such as International Mobile Subscriber Identity Catcher have been deployed to intercept and eavesdrop mobile phone traffic of local communications of political associates and oppositions and to track their movements. It is also pertinent to note that, a Nigerian senator also recently sponsored a bill on hate speech which aim was to punish hate speech offenders with death penalty.

 

WHAT’S THE PLACE OF HUMAN RIGHT?

The FreedomHouse (Kelly et al., 2016) and ISOC (2017) reported the section of the UN Human Rights Council that “Condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law. Goldsmith and Wu (2006) reiterated that governments of nations in their actions to regulate and control the Internet have used various means to do so without any recourse to the consent of the public or civil societies. It is in this context that numerous governmental and non-governmental bodies have started to demand a say in the global management of the Internet. The argument is premised on the fact of the ownership of the Internet, which is a global public good requires inclusiveness in its governance (Subramanian, 2013). Other human rights instruments such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Right (ACHPR), Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, recognised freedom of information and expression as fundamental human rights (PIN, 2017). It is pertinent to note that these governments jettisoned these instruments and have drafted their own Acts and legislations contrary to International treaties. Other country-level studies such as the one conducted by FreedomHouse on 47 countries as reported by Lucchi (2013) found that there are obstacles to access, limits on contents and violations of human rights. He also reported that though there are improvements in some selected countries; still, restrictions on Internet freedom and access to information continue to grow. Access to the Internet is increasingly enabling fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, association, information and communication. For this reason, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that affirms that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online” (Lucchi, 2013).

The reports of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have noted a lack of adequate legislation and enforcement and weak procedural safeguards [8]. In addition, the majority of the Internet users and other relevant stakeholders such as the civil society organisations, the media, other non-governmental organisations, academia, businesses in the private sector, etc are not aware of the available threats in the online community. Also probably they are not familiar with the provision of International laws towards access and the use of the Internet. It is equally possible that they may not also be aware of the inadequacies in local legislations which the government is using to constitute a threat for their freedom while expressing themselves online (ITU, 2009). This among others justifies the basis for advocacy in this respect.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] http://www.internetworldstats.com/africa.htm

[2] OECD, 2011 https://goo.gl/ic68pV

[3] ISOC, 2017 https://www.internetsociety.org/lets-keep-internet-everyone

[4] https://goo.gl/lwIpx4

[5] http://cipesa.org/2017/03/the-evolution-of-internet-shutdowns-in-dr-congo/

[6] https://cert.gov.ng/ngcert/resources/CyberCrime__Prohibition_Prevention_etc__Act__2015.pdf

[8] http://www.mediaanddemocracy.com/uploads/1/6/5/7/16577624/comms-surveillance-framework_mare2.pdf

 

 

Author:

Olusesan Michael AWOLEYE (M.Sc., UK; Ph.D., Nigeria)

Research Fellow,

African Institute for Science Policy and Innovation,

Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria

awoleye@yahoo.co.ukmawoleye@oauife.edu.ng

+234-706-919-7823

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