Category Archives: Media

Are East African States Using ‘Terrorism’ to Stifle Internet Freedoms?


By Edris Kisambira

On May 23, 2014, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) launched a report on the State of Internet Freedom in East Africa. The report is an investigation into the policies and practices that define internet freedom in the region. The event, which took place in Kampala, Uganda, was attended by ICT thought leaders, media and human rights activists from Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Nigeria, among others.

A number of East Africa countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda boast over 50% teledensity and a growing number of internet users.

But as internet user numbers grow, so does content questioning governments’ democratic credentials. In turn, governments are enacting laws to counter freedom of expression, including online. These curtails are often framed under the guise of fighting terrorism, cyber crime and hate speech.

The CIPESA report noted that, regrettably, despite increased usage of the internet and infringements on freedoms, East Africans are not engaging enough in discussions around the issues of internet freedoms.

In his keynote address at the launch, the Chairperson of the ICT Committee in Uganda’s parliament, Vincent Waiswa Bagiire, noted that internet use by East African citizens has grown exponentially over the last five years. Considering the importance of the internet to improving livelihoods, the economy, and to security and stability, it had become necessary to make regulations to govern the online space.

“The issue becomes whether the rules are fair, inclusive, allow the growth of the internet and associated digital technologies, or whether they suppress citizens’ rights and creativity, lock out some sections of society and stifle creativity and innovation,” said Bagiire.

Panel discussions centred on how to find a balance between users’ freedoms and national security, as well as on online safety, security and privacy.

Arnold Mangeni, the Data Centre Manager at the National Information Technology Authority of Uganda (NITA-U) noted that when one goes online, they need not to expect security and privacy granted at the same time. He added that governments are mandated to protect citizens and as such have to curtail some freedoms while protecting citizens.

This sentiment was in sharp contrast to that of Neil Blazevic from the Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network. He encouraged citizens to take more active measures to ensure their privacy and security both offline and online. “Privacy is something we rely on in basic existence without which we face an existential crisis,” he said.

Patrick Mutahi, a Safety & Security Programme Officer from Article 19 Kenya raised the concern that while pursuing national security, governments are collecting citizen’s personal information during SIM card and national Identity registration exercises with no regulations on how this information is used. He further said governments are moving to curtail some of the freedoms because of vices like hate speech.

Lydia Namubiru, a Programme Officer at the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), said privacy and security online, like transport infrastructure for example, was a public service and should be guaranteed by governments. She said government surveillance online is akin to “placing a police officer at someone’s bedroom window”.

Panelists pointed to a need for competent judicial authorities to provide oversight over surveillance and monitoring. They also called for governments to consult citizens in enacting laws related to internet freedoms.

It was also pointed out that individuals and the private sector should take responsibility for their own online privacy and security.

“The Police alone cannot protect everyone online. The private sector has got to play a major role too. For example the problem of unsolicited SMS messages and online fraud where people lose millions of shillings in bogus transactions,” said Jimmy Haguma, the Acting Commissioner for Electronic and Counter Measures, Uganda Police Force.

He was backed by legislator Bagiire who said online safety is complex and needs continuous stakeholder collaborative efforts and user sensitisation efforts.

“Whereas government will put in place laws to protect users like the Computer Misuse Act and the e-signatures Ac, we the individuals have to be careful online,” he said.

Conducted between January 2010 and April 2014, CIPESA’s research found that the state of internet freedom in East Africa is littered with legislation and state actions which contradict constitutional rights provisions.

The legacy of colonial laws still lingers in countries like Tanzania and Uganda where public information disclosure is severely restricted. Besides, some laws, without being explicit on the internet and related technologies, are used in contexts that they were not intended for. Meanwhile, in Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi, hate speech content regulations posed a threat to internet freedoms. In Ethiopia, the state monopoly over telecommunications was found to enable mass surveillance and content filtering, particularly that of the regime’s critics.

The full report can be found here.

Q&A: Uganda Government Develops Social Media Guidelines


The internet and indeed social media plays a key role in improving communication between citizens, government-to-government interactions and at government-to-citizen level. Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and MySpace, has the potential to improve governance and democracy practices.

Accordingly, the Uganda government through the National Information Technology Authority Uganda (NITA-U) has developed guidelines to “to facilitate secure usage of social media (Facebook and Twitter etc.) for efficient exchange of information across Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) as well as improving effectiveness of communication, sharing of information and open engagement and discussions with the public.”

On November 28, 2013 Leonah Mbonimpa, the Corporate Communications Officer at NITA-U spoke to CIPESA about the thinking behind the guidelines.

Q. What is the background to developing these guidelines?

A. Government has decided to utilise new channels to communication such as social media to communicate to citizens and give timely responses to emerging issues. In this vein, NITA-U was requested to develop guidelines to help government agencies to embrace social media while maintaining the same level of decorum as with traditional media.

Q. Why did the government find it necessary to draw up these guidelines?

A. Traditionally, Government agencies have been communicating through accounting officers such as  Permanent Secretaries. The advent of new media channels and the quest for speedy provision of information has necessitated the shift from traditional approaches to more flexible ways of communicating, [such as] using social media. Given that social media is relatively new and comes with a higher degree of responsibility when communicating, it was necessary to provide guidelines for government agencies to ensure that we communicate [appropriately].

Q. What do the guidelines intend to achieve?

A. They intend to achieve uniformity in communicating and ensure appropriate consultation is made before posting government communication online.

Q. How is users’ privacy protected in these guidelines?

A. The guidelines do not infringe on user privacy. They only seek to standardise the government’s approach to communicating to citizens online.

Q. Are there other initiatives in place or under development by government to protect freedom of expression and privacy online.

A. NITA-U is in preparatory stages of drafting a Data Privacy bill which will eventually be enacted into law to comprehensively address privacy issues.

Further details about the guidelines are available here

We are watching you! Tech helps Africans hold governments to account


 By Loren Treisman

(CNN) — With hundreds of millions of Africans owning mobile phones, citizens are becoming increasingly well connected. This is providing a powerful opportunity for citizens to access critical information about their parliaments and to report on human rights violations, corruption and poor service delivery.

These interventions are amplifying the voices of marginalized communities and helping citizens to hold governments to account.

For citizens to actively participate in democracy, it is critical that they are able to access information on parliamentary proceedings and elected representatives. MySociety is contributing to this process. It has partnered with local organizations across Africa to build sites like Mzalendo in Kenya and Odekro in Ghana, which enable citizens to access information about parliamentary proceedings and their elected representatives, rate their MPs and gain a better understanding about government’s inner workings.

They’ve taken this process one step further in South Africa. The Open Democracy Advice Centre has created a platform where citizens can submit Freedom of Information Requests. A data repository has been created online, enabling journalists, analysts and campaigners to utilize this information to hold government to account and campaign for improved service delivery.

There’s a real thirst for this information in Africa. In Nigeria, a simple application created by developer Pledge 51 enables citizens to access their constitution by mobile phone and has been downloaded more than 750,000 times. During protests sparked by last year’s fuel crisis, where an increase in the price of fuel resulted in soaring commodity prices, this enabled citizens to exercise their rights against police forces.

Misinformation fueled this crisis, with few citizens understanding the new fuel subsidy payment or oil revenue share in their country. A local organization called BudgIT aimed to address this by generating simple infographics which took citizens through these complex processes in a visual format.

Utilizing the power of social media, this sparked more informed debates and dialogue that contributed to restoring order. The team has since produced a whole series of images that breakdown the Nigerian budget by state and sector, enabling citizens to better understand the country’s budget and to utilize this information to ensure that allocated funds are translated into improved services.

Across the continent, platforms are being developed that enable citizens to use SMS from basic phones to report challenges in service delivery. In the impoverished Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, residents have submitted around 3,000 reports on issues like poor sanitation, electricity and transport to the Lungisa platform from their mobile phones, Facebook and the web. Remarkably, most of the issues have been resolved by the city council.

In Northern Uganda, the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, leaving infrastructure and service delivery in dire straits. A Peace, Recovery and Development Plan has been put in place but progress is limited. Only a few health centers have been established, there’s a severe shortage of drugs, medical workers and equipment and corruption is commonplace.

CIPESA has created a platform populated with information on health programs being implemented in the region and citizen journalists are able to submit reports, photographs and audio footage describing the real situation on the ground, whilst Voluntary Sector Accountability Committees established by WOUGNET are utilizing a similar platform to report on corrupt practices and poor governance. The data collected is being used by the NGOs to hold government to account and advocate for improved services.

In many African countries, youth often feel excluded from the political process. As young people are the biggest consumers of technology, platforms are being developed that enable them to become more actively engaged. In Kenya, Youth Agenda is utilizing an SMS platform to encourage youth to vet their leaders according to policies and attributes instead of along tribal lines. The platform is also used to gauge political opinion. The feedback is collated into reports which are fed into government, giving youth a voice and allowing them to contribute to the development of policy.

Until 2009, Kibera — one of the world’s largest slums and home to more than 250,000 people — appeared only as a blank on online maps. This made it easy for government to ignore the needs of its citizens. Map Kibera has equipped young activists with GPS-enabled phones and has supported them in creating a map of the region, part of a wider program that empowers youth to raise awareness of the challenges faced by their communities and advocate for change.

Plan Cameroon has taken this process a step further in three districts. Once youth have mapped their area, they populate the map with data on service delivery such as access to water points, clean water and hygiene facilities. Local councilors and activists are utilizing this data to mobilize the involved communities to demand better services and advocate for change.

Technology applications can be developed anywhere and what’s exciting about many of these initiatives is that they’re being devised locally. Technology innovation hubs are springing up across the continent. These state-of-the-art facilities enable technologists and social activists to access high-speed internet, events and mentoring, as well as creating a collaborative environment that galvanizes the tech community. This is beginning to have a significant effect on the number and quality of projects being developed locally.

Homegrown solutions are often most effective, as local communities are best able to understand the complex local needs, behaviors and nuances. Some of these hubs such as Jozi Hub in Johannesburg and Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria, have targeted programs to support transparency initiatives, thus catalyzing this process.

Undoubtedly, technology isn’t a panacea for all social problems. And at times, such as when the technology utilized isn’t locally available or where governments lack capacity to respond to issues being reported it can be entirely inappropriate. However, when combined with well devised programs, their power to reach the previously unreachable and to bring the voices of citizens closer to government makes them a significant contributor to the process of ensuring that government’s best serve the interests of their citizens.

This article was published by CNN on August 12, 2013