Online freedom in East Africa requires amendments to current laws and openness from state agencies
Across the globe, the Internet and social media have become a medium for citizens to express their ideas and opinions to leaders and fellow citizens. The use of ICT for freedom of expression in East Africa is especially prevalent. However, what happens when governments, taking notice of the large base of the population who is now online, start to impose controls over the internet and mobile access?
Last week, CIPESA released a report, titled, “State of Internet Freedoms in East Africa 2014” which explored the state of internet in East African countries including Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. The latest publication builds upon a brief about recent legislation that limits Ugandan online freedom.
The findings of the new report, while similar to what has already been discussed in the Ugandan context, are unique in how they threaten internet freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and media freedom. Above all, these issues of citizen’s rights are not only specific to East Africa – or even Africa, for that matter. Recommendations include amendments to laws and regulations, greater awareness of legal shortcomings, and openness by state agencies.
Some thoughts to consider:
- How some colonial laws are still active today in Tanzania and are being applied to online communications
- How the constitution is blatantly ignored by some of this legislation especially when it is applied to freedom of expression
- How freedom of speech and assembly is curtailed under the guise of national security
- How surveillance for national security is used to source information to be used against those who speak up against the ruling party – especially on social media platforms
- How a flood of internet-related laws, interception of communications, denial of access to information, inadequate knowledge of online safety, lack of privacy laws, ambiguous regional regulatory frameworks can be addressed
The following are high-level recaps by country. Specific examples of government action against websites and journalists can be found in the report.
- During 2013, Burundi became one of the first countries in the region to pass laws that specifically provided for regulation of online media.
- The Press Law, also amended in 2013, proscribes dissemination of information – in print, broadcast and digital – that undermines national security, incites civil disobedience, serves as propaganda for enemies or insults the country’s president.
- While Burundi’s constitution guarantees citizens’ privacy, freedom of expression and opinion, amendments made to the Code of Criminal Procedure in April 2013 provide for interception of communications, potentially including digital communications.
- This research did not find evidence of the Burundi government ordering internet service providers to block particular websites or SMS services, or the tapping of telephone conversations.
- Citizens who use the internet to criticize the one party rule have been accused of promoting terrorism and their websites and blogs are blocked.
- The 2008 Media Law, the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Law, the 2012 Telecom Fraud Law and most recently, the National Intelligence and Security Re-establishment Proclamation of 2013 have one after the other taken back the rights provided by the constitution.
- Studies suggest that perhaps more than any other country in Africa, Ethiopia regularly blocks websites, undertakes surveillance of websites and social media, and charges journalists over content published offline and online.
- Despite progressive reforms, Kenya lacks an access to information law, although a bill was published in 2007.
- In 2013, Kenya amended two of her communications acts – the Kenya Communications and Information (Amendment) Act, 2013 and the Media Council Act 2013 – inserting retrogressive provisions that restrict media freedom and general freedom of expression.
- The elections of 2013 not only saw increased usage of ICT for varying purposes, by citizens, civil society groups, and politicians, but also a surge in hate speech over the internet, particularly through social media.
- As recently as April 2014, state agencies intruded into citizens’ communications and took action against online publishers.
- The Rwanda Media Law No. 02/2013 gives journalists the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the “right to seek, receive, give and broadcast information and ideas through media”. Section 3, Article 19 of this law is dedicated to internet-based media.
- In August 2013, Rwanda amended the 2008 law on interception of Communications.
- Some critical news websites that were previously blocked in 2010-2011 were intermittently inaccessible throughout 2012 and early 2013 and a number of critical blogs were unavailable altogether.
- Many of the laws governing Tanzania’s media and communications are outdated and retrogressive.
- In August 2013, the regulator, Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), launched a social media campaign to curb hate speech and to promote “positive use” of ICT in the country.
- In the absence of an access to information law, the National Security Act of 1970 is used to define what should be disclosed or withheld from the public.
- Tanzania is going through a constitutional review process with the draft constitution now being debated by the Constituent Assembly. Section 29 regarding freedom of expression and 30 regarding freedom of information and the media, if passed in their current form, would extend the breadth of rights guaranteed to citizens.
- Also, government’s announcement in April 2014 of plans to enact a Cyber Security Act, Data Protection Act and the Electronic Transacting Act by end of 2014 is a positive step for online users’ security.
- In 2010, Uganda’s parliament hurriedly passed the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act following the terrorist attacks in Kampala in July of that year.
- The Anti-Terrorism Act (2002) gives security officers powers to intercept the communications of a person suspected of terrorist activities and to keep such persons under surveillance.
- Section 13 of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014 which prohibits any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex outlaws the promotion of homosexuality, including by the use of “electronic devices which include internet, films, and mobile phones for purposes of homosexuality or promoting homosexuality.”
- Under section 17 (1) of the Anti-Pornography Act, an ISP through whose service pornography is uploaded or downloaded is punishable with a fine of up to UGX 10 million (US$4,000) or five years imprisonment or both.
Individual country reports will be released soon but in the meantime, please see the report at CIPESA.