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True online freedom in Africa requires legal and political support

September 17, 2013  »  ICT Policy2 Comments

Internet access is becoming part of the fabric of African life and is a key component of social progress. Filtering online content inhibits freedom of expression.

Online press freedom in Africa has made a few gains in the past year. Tunisia, with great support from the Tunisian Internet Agency is a primary example of progress this year. Kenya is working to pass legislation that adequately covers online freedom. Still, netizens in many countries still face illegal detention for speaking out against the government. Even when such speech is within reason it often falls into a legal grey area. Opposition members in nations with looming political elections often face arrest as well.

A year ago, there was a noted uptick in the reported number of African Facebook users arrested for posted so-called defamatory comments. In September 2012, we had already counted arrests of online users in Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Tunisia, Malawi, and Kenya (7 countries). Essentially no change in the number of arrests or the number of countries willing to arrest bloggers can be seen this year.

Arrests of online users in Africa, 2013:

  • Chad: Blogger Jean Etienne Laokol√© was arrested in March 2013. Blogger and journalist Makaila Nuguebla was deported from Senegal and forced to seek shelter in Guinea after criticizing the Chadian government.
  • Egypt: A prominent Egyptian blogger handed himself in to authorities after the country’s prosecutor general ordered his arrest along with four others for allegedly instigating violence with comments posted on social media. Alber Saber, an Egyptian Christian, was arrested on September 16, 2012 for his connection to a Facebook page. Jerusalem Post blogger Ahmed Meligy was reportedly arrested in December 2012 after criticizing the Morsi regime.
  • Guinea-Bissau: An international arrest warrant was issued against blogger Ant√≥nio Aly Silva by the regime in November 2012.
  • Ivory Coast: Alain Bi Doh, known for his anti-government blog posts, was arrested by Ivorian Intelligence services on 14 November, 2012 and released a few days later
  • Kenya: Outspoken blogger Robert Alai was arrested at least once this year for hate speech.
  • Malawi: Online journalist Justice Mponda was arrested October 15, 2012 in Blantyre allegedly for insulting the president, publishing false information and criminal libel.
  • Mauritania: On August 7, Mauritanian authorities arrested blogger Babbah Weld Abidine after he inquired about a rape case.
  • Morocco: Moroccan police on September 17 arrested the editor of a news website for airing a video posted by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
  • Zambia: Journlist Wilson Pondamali was arrested in July for having restricted documents (he also supposedly is tied to the Zambian Watchdog news site).
  • According to Threatened Voices, bloggers from Tunisia, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Morocco are still in jail.

Also worth noting is how The Gambia is banned commercial use of VoIP services like Skype and Viber. Comores Telecom banned the services outright for those in Comoros. Nigeria‘s Federal Government was under fire earlier this year after awarding a supposed “Internet spying” contract to an Israeli firm.

More arrests will no doubt occur in the coming months as bloggers continue to speak out against oppressive regimes. Others will be detained for crossing the hazy line between free speech and defamation.

At the very least, access to information is a right and the internet is the platform to exercise rights of freedom of speech. A challenge in securing open access has to do with inadequate legal framework that is too often outdated. Many countries that criminalize libel in traditional media have shakily extended this into cyberspace. Plus, governments need to teach safe online practices – they can’t just give access and expect it to solve local problems. On top of that, few developing countries have indigenous Internet freedom experts or advocates.

Either way, every African government (and perhaps every government) needs to better address what exactly constitutes online freedom of speech. Awareness of the need to strengthen legislation is a good first step in solving the problem. Politics need to be put aside, however.

Note: Undoubtedly more arrests of African online users/bloggers have been made this year. Please let us know of any individuals we may have missed.