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Report finds declining global Internet freedom; no freedom in Ethiopia, The Gambia, Sudan

January 9, 2015  »  ICT PolicyNo Comment

Of sixteen African nations surveyed from May 2013 through May 2014, only two (Kenya and South Africa) were found to have true online freedom. The Gambia, Sudan, and Ethiopia were found to not be free. The findings come as no surprise as governments around the world are enact new laws that effectively criminalize online dissent.

In its entirety, the Freedom On The Net 2014 report identifies key trends in internet freedom in 65 countries (up from 60 last year). The study, published by Freedom House, finds that more governments are keen on blocking and filtering opposing online viewpoints. Authorities are as likely as ever to arrest individuals who post critical comments on social media sites. Activists have become better at raising awareness of threats to online freedom but governments are not necessarily listening.


{Freedom House}

Globally, a staggering 36 of 65 nations assessed experienced a decline in internet freedom since 2013 (up from twenty during 2011). For one, there was increased government pressure on independent news websites. In addition, the majority of countries increased government powers to control online content. Nearly two-thirds of countries proposed or passed restrictive legislation. Arrests for online communications were noted in 38 of the 65 countries (heavily in the MENA region). Threats toward women and marginalized groups continues to be an emerging threat.

Within Africa, South Africa and Kenya are again considered to be ‘free’. In descending order of freedom, Nigeria, Uganda, Angola, Tunisia, Malawi, Zambia, Morocco, Libya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Egypt fall in the ‘partly free’ region. Sudan, The Gambia, and Ethiopia are considered ‘not free’.

Many African nations experienced score declines: Libya (-3), Morocco (-2), Angola (-4), Nigeria (-2), Rwanda (-2), Sudan (-2), Zimbabwe (-1). Angola’s decline was the fourth largest globally (Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine had larger declines). Tunisia’s score represented the lone increase (has improved 7 points in two years). Data is lacking for the vast majority of African countries (likely due to resources – the current report is 989 pages long as it stands).


{Freedom House}

Country reports


  • Few limits on content but moderate obstacles to access and violations of user rights
  • Two individuals were charged with defamation for their alleged ties to articles posted on the independent news website, Club-K
  • Evidence from inside sources affirmed that a German company had assisted the Angolan military intelligence in installing a sophisticated communications monitoring system on a military base. Further evidence, as of November 2013, found that at least one major ISP hosts a spyware system directly on its server
  • A prominent investigative journalist was arrested while interviewing protesters for his independent news blog in September 2013; he was also the target of a sophisticated and customized malware attack on his computer that was traced to parties within the Angolan government


  • Some limits on content and obstacles to access but main issue is violations of user rights
  • Authorities repeatedly suspended telecommunications service in the Sinai Peninsula during military operations, disrupting the flow of information to and from the territory
  • The country’s highly divisive political environment has resulted in increasing verbal harassment between social media users and a declining willingness to speak out on contentious issues, resulting in self-censorship
  • In a referendum, Egyptians passed a new constitution that “guarantees” freedom of expression in theory, while outlining punishments for broadly defined offenses that could apply to online speech and preserving military trials for civilians
  • An increasing number of reporters and staff at online news agencies were detained over the past year, particularly while covering anti-government protests. Prison sentences ranged from suspended sentences to several years. Popular bloggers and political activists continued to face trumped up charges, often for attending unlicensed protests


  • Major obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights
  • Social media or apps are blocked, political content is blocked, and bloggers were arrested
  • Telecom services worsened, characterized by frequently dropped phone calls, prolonged internet service interruptions, and slow response times to service failures
  • Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and CNN were inaccessible for 12 hours in July 2013, while the number of permanently blocked webpages also increased
  • A law enacted in November 2013 gives the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) carte blanche to inspect private online activities without oversight
  • The government launched sophisticated surveillance malware against several online journalists in the Ethiopian diaspora and dissidents in exile
  • Six bloggers of the prominent Zone9 blogging collective were arrested in April 2014 on charges of terrorism


  • Featured for the first time in this report
  • Violations of user rights, limits on content, and obstacles to access all exist
  • In May 2013, the government began the process of liberalizing international gateway services
  • Internet cafe registration regulations were tightened in September 2013, requiring operators to provide thorough details for a license, as well as mandating the physical layout of cafes and the signs that must be displayed
  • Access to the internet was disconnected for 48 hours in March 2014. Shortly after, the popular voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) platform Viber was blocked
  • Amendments to the 2009 Information Communication Act were passed in July 2013, criminalizing the use of the internet to criticize the president or spread false news with up to 15 years in prison
  • Prominent TV presenter Fatou Camara was arrested and accused of using the internet to defame the president in September 2013. She fled the country upon release on bail. Another individual was arrested in December for broadcasting an opposition political rally via Skype without a license


  • Few obstacles to access or limits on content though certain violations of user rights were apparent
  • No users arrested in the period though this changed in December 2014
  • Two bills—the Kenyan Information and Communications Amendment (KICA) 2013 and Media Bill 2013—were signed into law in December 2013 with provisions that threaten to restrict media freedom both online and offline; the High Court halted implementation of both laws in January 2014 until the full Court considers the legal claims
  • A new regulatory body, the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), was created under KICA, though the degree of its independence is debatable due to the political appointment process of its board members
  • In May 2014, political activist Moses Kuria reported that his Facebook account had been shut down for alleged hate speech
  • Additions to SIM card registration regulations were drafted in January 2014 that, if implemented, will provide the communications regulator with unfettered access to mobile network service providers’ subscriber records without a court order
  • A Vodafone report published in June 2014 included Kenya as one of 29 countries that requested access to user communications data (metadata) on Vodafone networks, while Google’s Transparency Report documented 13 government requests for user account information


  • Substantial obstacles to access and moderate violations of user rights but few limits on content
  • Protestors stormed the headquarters of the Libya Telecom and Technology, making political demands and forcing engineers to cut off internet access to large parts of the country
  • In February, the General National Congress (GNC) passed a law prohibiting any criticism of the 2011 revolution, as well as insults against GNC members
  • Online threats and violent attacks on journalists increased. Khadija el-Emaime, a reporter with the news website Libya al-Mustaqbal, survived an assassination attempt in Benghazi in August 2013


  • Some violations of user rights and limits on content, but more obstacles to access
  • In July 2013, the government reinstated a VAT of 16.5 percent on internet services after it was removed only a year earlier
  • Pro-government commentators on social media platforms seemed to increase, particularly in the lead-up to the tripartite elections in May 2014
  • The draft Electronic Transactions and Management Bill—introduced in October 2013—explicitly provided for freedom for online public communications but included provisions similar to the controversial E-Bill that may threaten internet freedom
  • In November 2013, an online journalist was arrested for allegedly “intimidating the royal family.” He was held for four days on charges of extortion and eventually acquitted in February 2014
  • SIM card registration requirements were announced in January 2014 to be implemented by the end of 2014


  • Few limits on content or obstacles to access but more severe violations of user rights
  • Access to Lakome, an independent and investigative news site, was blocked on October 17, 2013, sparking local and international outrage over one of the first instances of state censorship in recent years
  • The blocking of Lakome, which came shortly after it had published controversial stories chronicling the royal pardoning of a convicted pedophile and extremists’ threats against the monarchy, has contributed to a slight increase in self-censorship among independent journalists
  • Ali Anouzla, editor-in-chief of the French-language version of Lakome, was arrested in September 2013 on charges of supporting and advocating terrorism in the context of an article had written on jihadist threats in Morocco. He was apparently charged for providing a link to a Spanish news site, which in turn had embedded the jihadist YouTube video in question. He was released on bail in October and his trial has been repeatedly postponed
  • Two high school students were detained by police for one week in October 2013 in the city of Nador after a friend posted a photograph on Facebook of them kissing in front of their high school. All three juveniles were charged with violating public decency law, prompting a campaign in which activists staged kiss-ins and posted photos online


  • Relatively few limits on content or obstacles to access or violations of user rights
  • Mobile phone services were shutdown in three northern states from May to December 2013 following the announcement of emergency rule in the region as part of a military strategy against the Boko Haram terrorist group
  • In November 2013, pro-government trolls were accused of blocking links to articles posted on the Facebook page of the well-known investigative online news outlet, Premium Times
  • Two individuals were arrested for posts on social media platforms: one in October 2013 for allegedly criticizing the governor of Bayelsa state on his Facebook page; the other in March 2014 for live-tweeting an incident involving Boko Haram militants and the State Secret Service
  • The regulator announced a new directive in October 2013 requiring cybercafes to register customers and maintain an up-to-date database of subscribers
  • Suspicions of government surveillance increased following a November 2013 report about the installation of a mass surveillance system and revelations that the 2014 budget contained various earmarks for the purchase of specialized surveillance equipment


  • A fair level of user rights violations, limits on content, and obstacles to access
  • While ICT development continued to expand access to the internet across the country, a growing number of independent online news outlets and opposition blogs were intermittently inaccessible in Rwanda
  • News reports in early 2014 revealed that the Rwandan government may employ fake Twitter trolls to harass, discredit, and intimidate critical voices online
  • The Law Relating to the Interception of Communications enacted in October authorized high-ranking security officials to monitor email and telephone conversations of individuals considered potential threats to “public security”
  • Stanley Gatera, the editor of the independent news website Umusingi, was arrested in April on trumped-up charges of attempted extortion. Upon release, he faced death threats that led him to flee the country in exile
  • Foreign journalists were harassed for their critical coverage of the Rwandan government, with some reports of online harassment tied to senior officials

South Africa:

  • Very few obstacles to access or limits on content
  • A new broadband policy called South Africa Connect was initiated in December 2013, with aims to provide every citizen access to a broadband connection at a cost of 2.5 percent or less of the average monthly income by 2020. This policy was complemented by the rollout of broadband plans in provinces like Gauteng, which aim to provide free internet access to the poor
  • There were no incidents of online censorship in South Africa during the coverage period, though video clips from a new satellite news channel posted on YouTube were taken down for alleged copyright violations in August 2013 ; some speculated political motivation behind the requests
  • While the online sphere is becoming a dominant source of news and information for South Africans, acquisitions by politically-aligned companies of major news outlets and the launch of new media products by pro-ANC businesses indicated the government’s growing influence in the media
  • The General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill, enacted in July 2013, provides state security agencies with an ambiguous authority to intercept “foreign signals intelligence” without judicial oversight


  • Major obstacles to access, violations or user rights, and limits on content
  • A localized internet service disruption in June and a nationwide blackout in September corresponded with large anti-government protests; the blackouts were reportedly directed by the government
  • U.S. sanctions on Sudan had a negative impact on the ability of Sudan’s civil society to leverage online technologies, inhibiting important civil society efforts
  • Monitoring and filtering devices from Blue Coat Systems were traced to three networks inside Sudan in June
  • Government surveillance of online activists and journalists was particularly pronounced during the June and September 2013 protests
  • A number of individuals were arrested for their ICT activities, while journalists and civil society groups were subject to an increasing degree of technical violence


  • Moderate violations of user rights but few limits on content or obstacles to access
  • A new constitution was passed in January 2014 that enshrines the right to free speech, protects the privacy of communications data, and bans “prior censorship” of the media. However, laws on criminal defamation, insulting state bodies, or offending religion remain a threat to free speech and independent reporting
  • A handful of Tunisians were detained, fined, or sentenced to prison time for their online activities. Journalists faced criminal defamation charges for criticizing public officials, while others, such as rapper Ala Yacoubi and social media user Jabeur Mejri, continue to face legal harassment despite being released from prison on earlier charges related to online expression
  • The Technical Telecommunications Agency (ATT) was established with a mandate to monitor cyberspace and pursue cybercrimes, sparking fears that censorship and surveillance may return to pre-Ben Ali levels


  • Some obstacles to access and violations of user rights but few limits on content
  • The Uganda Communications Act 2013 created a new media regulatory body that has been criticized for its lack of independence from the government
  • There were no reports of internet content being blocked or filtered during the coverage period, though an Anti-Pornography Act signed into law by the president in February 2014 threatens to hold ISPs criminally liable for the dissemination of broadly defined pornographic material
  • In response to an increasing crackdown against traditional media in the past year, critical commentary and opposition voices have become more vibrant online, leading to a palpable sense of decreasing self-censorship among some online users
  • The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, enacted in February 2014, criminalized the use of electronic devices “for the purposes of homosexuality or promoting homosexuality”
  • SIM card and mobile internet registrations continued through August 2013 despite concerns that the registration requirements infringe on the right to privacy given the lack of a necessary data protection law
  • Suspicions of proactive government surveillance of online communications increased with reports that the government had begun importing surveillance equipment and setting up internet monitoring units among the various security agencies


  • Included in the report for the first time
  • Some violations of user rights, limits on content, and obstacles to access
  • In July 2013, Zambia’s southwestern region, Barotseland, reported an area-wide power outage that impacted all internet and mobile services for about 40 minutes. The region’s critical online radio station accused the government of deliberate interference to censor a controversial radio show
  • Access to four independent news websites was blocked for the first time in Zambia, reportedly as part of the government’s overall crackdown on critical media coverage
  • The ruling party continued to stall on a new draft constitution that provides for electronic media freedom and explicitly prohibits the government from interfering with media activities. The government instead called for legislation to regulate online media, citing the problems of “internet abuse” and cyber crime
  • The regulator disconnected all unregistered SIM cards after the registration deadline of January 31, 2014
  • Officials targeted individuals suspected of being associated with the critical online news outlet Zambian Watchdog , arresting three suspects


  • A relatively high number of violations of user rights and some obstacles to access though fewer limits on content
  • General elections took place in July 2013, which President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party overwhelmingly won. In the week leading up to the elections, the telecommunications regulator issued a directive to mobile phone providers to block the dissemination of bulk SMS messages
  • An anonymous Facebook user, using the pseudonym Baba Jukwa, continued to incite the ruling party, reportedly leading President Mugabe to post a US$330,000 reward in July 2013 for any individual willing to unmask the elusive whistle-blower
  • A new constitution was adopted in May 2013, providing for press freedom and freedom of expression
  • Two ordinary Facebook users were arrested for their posts, one for alleging that President Mugabe had died, the other for posting an image of an electoral ballot displaying a vote for opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai
  • Mass surveillance and illegal interception activities by security agencies reportedly increased following the July elections, for both national security and politically motivated purposes
  • The Postal and Telecommunications (Subscriber Registration) Regulations, enacted in October 2013, expanded the scope of subscriber registration requirements to broadly include all telecommunications services and provided the authorities with access without a court order

The internet is a crucial medium not just for personal communication or news and information, but for political participation and civic engagement. The struggle for internet freedom is consequently inseparable from the struggle for freedom of every kind.” – Freedom House

Visit the official site for an overview, summary of findings, detailed country reports, maps, and more.

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