African governments are increasingly clamping down on the internet, especially social media, as well as messaging applications, in an attempt to silence democratic opposition, civil society and activists mobilising against poor governance.
Technology has made it increasingly possible for Africans across the continent to distribute and receive alternative sources of information to government propaganda and disinformation and has made secrecy more difficult.
Since independence, most African governments have monopolised old media, such as newspapers and public broadcasters, to give their versions of what is happening in their countries. Many autocrats have manipulated the flow of information, either through propaganda on state-owned media or by withholding information that would show citizens the true extent of their incompetence, misrule and corruption.
Government critics, opposition and civil society groups are often prevented from giving the full picture or alternative perspectives on state-owned media.
However, the proliferation of cellphones has allowed for new media platforms, especially where the old media are firmly controlled by governments. It has opened new ways to produce and distribute independent information to mass audiences, normally accessed only by government media.
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The North African “Arab Spring” protests of 2011 and 2012 by young people against corrupt ruling parties and leaders are cases in point. During the “revolutions”, young people used social media to organise protests and support movements to make their voices heard in ways not possible before, when they were barred from official state media.
New sources of alternative information, which are becoming available to Africans across the continent, break undemocratic governments and leaders’ stranglehold on information flow and will be a powerful force for better governance in the future.
Many African countries are aware of the liberating power of the internet and social media and are increasingly censoring these platforms and those using them. Online publications are routinely closed down and bloggers and social media activists are imprisoned for criticising governments. Many African governments are monitoring and intercepting e-mail and internet communications to prevent opposition views from spreading.
In many countries, social media are controlled by state-owned companies or, if in private hands, are under the thumb of the state. For example, Ethio Telecom, the state-owned telecommunications monopoly in Ethiopia, has been regularly accused of interrupting connectivity during periods of political protests. Similarly, in Eritrea, the internet is strictly controlled by state-owned company, EriTel, and all ISPs are obliged to use government gateway.
Earlier this year, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe claimed the opposition was “abusing” social media and the internet to undermine the government.
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“We want general technology in our country to be advanced so the mobile phone is not just a feature phone but can be used to discover news, record news and to share with others via apps like WhatsApp. However, there’s a lot of bad stuff on the internet. Some people use the internet in bad ways. It’s everywhere. But the Chinese have put in place security measures and we look at these so that we stop these abuses on the internet,” he said.
The Ethiopian government has regularly blocked social media to prevent it being used to co-ordinate anti-government protests. Protests have engulfed the country since November, particularly in the Oromia region, where residents complain about political and economic marginalisation.
In the general elections in May last year, which opposition parties, civil groups and activists said were rife with irregularities, the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front secured 100 percent of the vote.
During anti-government protests, the Ethiopian government regularly blocked WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter. In April, Facebook and Twitter were off-line for almost a month in the Oromia region.
In July, the Ethiopian government shut down the internet after political protests in the country’s Gondar region. Social media applications, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Viber, stopped working for nearly 24 hours. The government claimed the move was aimed at preventing university students from cheating during entrance exams.
In April, governing party MPs in Egypt proposed new laws to “contain the dangers of Facebook”, claiming comments critical of the government “threatened national security”.
One of the MPs, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, said: “Parliament should move quickly to draft new legislation aimed at containing the excesses of Facebook.
“The West has sold us this Facebook to extort us and launch an assault on our personal and national security freedoms.”
Last year, Egypt blocked Facebook’s Free Basics internet service because the company declined to give the government access to users’ accounts.
The Egyptian government has arrested a number of activists for making critical comments on social media. In April, an arrest warrant was issued for journalist Khaled el-Balshi for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the government, inciting protests and insulting the Interior Ministry after comments on Facebook and Twitter. After civil society pressure, the warrant was cancelled, although the case has not been dropped.
Early this year, the Egyptian government arrested two activists for managing Facebook pages to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprisings, claiming they were “inciting” protests against the state.
Before the February presidential elections in Uganda, the government shut down social media. President Yoweri Museveni claimed it was to “avert lies” and to prevent the incitement of violence. On voting day, many Ugandans could not tweet or use Facebook. The government also shut down social media during the 2011 elections.
During the 2011 polls, and even more so during this year’s elections, Ugandans extensively used social media to debate issues and mobilise opposition to the government. Many used the hashtag #1986pictures to tweet pictures taken 30 years ago, comparing it to the current situation, to show “in 30 years, everything has changed in Uganda except the president”.
Last year, the Mozambican government slapped criminal charges on Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco and Fernando Mbanze over a Facebook post in 2013 in which they criticised former president Armando Guebuza.
Economist Castel-Branco had written an open letter on Facebook criticising governance under Guebuza.
Mbanze, editor of MediaFax newspaper, published Castel-Branco’s post and was charged with abusing freedom of the press.
In Sudan, internet speeds reportedly slow down during periods of political upheaval, with critics accusing the government of deliberately slowing connectivity. Independent online news outlets are regularly hacked and journalists and activists using social media frequently arrested.
In May, the Nigerian government withdrew its Cybercrime Act of 2015, after strong civil society complaints it undermined freedom of expression.
Last year, South Africa’s Film and Publication Board introduced draft legislation ostensibly to regulate online content, but which in fact introduced far-reaching restrictions, under the guise of regulating sex, violence and hate-speech content. After civil society opposition, the draft was rewritten, to take out some, not all, of the contentious restrictions.
The battle to bring democracy, inclusive development and peace to Africa will be increasingly waged on cellphones, the internet and social media. Autocratic African regimes have fallen due to opposition waged by ordinary citizens through these platforms. It is not surprising, therefore, autocrats would want to restrict them.
In June, the UN Human Rights Council condemned countries shutting down access to the internet to clamp down on anti-government criticisms as a violation of international human rights law.
To boost democracy, inclusive development and peace, regional bodies, such as the AU, and international ones, such as the UN, must introduce stronger measures against African leaders and governments who censor social media, activists and the internet, in order to muzzle opposition against poor democratic governance.