Dan Swinhoe (Africa)- Web Freedom Across Africa

Following on from last week's piece on social media across Africa where we touched upon censorship, we delve a little deeper into the subject this week. Censorship of the press has been rife across parts of the globe for as long as the printing press has been around, but the opportunities the Internet presents for people wishing to be heard has some governments spooked. Wary of giving people proper freedom on the web, some governments filter the web, and arrest bloggers and over-vocal social networkers without a second thought. But how common is this in Africa?

Published this month was Freedom House's 2012 Freedom On The Net report. Studying internet freedom between January 2011 and May 2012, the report includes 10 African countries, and on the whole paints a very mixed picture.

The worst performer on the continent was Ethiopia. The only African country to be rated "not free", things have actually gotten worse since the last report. Despite the low penetration of the Internet in the country - somewhere around 1% of the 87 million people who live there have access - "the government maintains a strict system of controls and is the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa to implement nationwide internet filtering." While the results of the Arab Spring in Northern Africa led to on-going change, calls for similar protests led to the strong-arming of journos and bloggers from the government and even stricter web censorship. Laws are incredibly harsh; life imprisonment and death are the reward for any material judged to be linked to offenses such as treason, espionage, or incitement, and publication of a "false rumor" is punishable by up to three years in prison. Journalists and the press have been regular victims of harassment, but bloggers coming under the same pressure is a new twist. Low numbers of internet users, high costs coupled with poor quality infrastructure that prevent more people from getting online, along with aggressive governing, mean things are unlikely to improve in the near future.

At the other end of the spectrum, South Africa and Kenya achieved the highest score, and the only two countries rated as "free". Though for such a developed economy, South Africa has fairly low internet penetration - around 7 million users which equates to about 15% - and reducing monopolies and improving infrastructure means that number is steadily rising. Overall, South Africa is very free; no internet filtering, access to social media and any other content on the web, and a free press. As SA continues to try and keep up with the BRIC countries, it can boast of being one of the most democratically open of them all. However, two bills making their way through parliament is causing genuine concern among the press, netizens and the greater public. The ‘General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill' would legalize the interception of "any communication that emanates from outside the borders of the republic, or passes through or ends in the republic." This means any online messages sent out of the country, even through email or social network, could be intercepted. Meanwhile, the proposed ‘Protection of State Information Bill' could see any journalists or users of whistle-blower sites receive a prison sentence of 25 years. Understandably this bill has rankled people, and numerous protests have taken place opposing its passage, which has led to concessions and amendments from the government.

One country that does surprisingly well is Zimbabwe. While it hasn't improved on last year's score, it has been labelled as "partly free" by Freedom House. Traditionally known for its lack of press freedom, internet freedoms remain fairly untouched. Bloggers and social media are available, and few have been punished for sharing their views. However, warrants allow ministers to monitor who they like, and the government has reportedly used Chinese assistance to hack into websites, but overall the Internet has not been adversely affected by the government. The rest of the African countries in Sub-Saharan Africa; Rwanda, Nigeria, and Uganda have all seen slight improvements since last year's report, testament to the fact that the continent is embracing the web and all it can offer.

Out of the African countries that had major uprisings during the Arab Spring, Tunisia has fared the best. While still rated as "partly free" by Freedom House, it has halved it score since the last report, meaning it is twice as free. Since the fall of the Ben Ali regime, Tunisia's internet has opened up massively with social networks, blogging sites and news outlets no longer filtered or censored. According to the report, "Citizen journalism on blogs and Facebook pages have proliferated and become a powerful source of critical reporting on any single event." However, within many countries that successfully changed the balance of power during the uprisings, things remain tense. Laws and apparatus used by the previous regime for censorship remain in place, though unused and not enforced by the current government. However, their mere presence concerns people that they could be brought back at any time, and several bloggers have been arrested for defamation and insulting Islam. The 2012 Internet Enemies Report from Reporters Without Borders says things are looking good but the situation "remains precarious".

Egypt, for all the press it received, has actually taken a step backwards. While the internet hasn't been shut off completely since the uprisings, most of the measures of surveillance and arrests remain in place or have gotten stronger. Social media and news outlets are available to people, but everything they say or do could be being watched. According to RWB, Bloggers and netizens critical of the army have been harassed, threatened, and sometimes arrested." The army are the main force behind the continued restrictions, and one blogger has been arrested since Mubarak fell.

Libya seems to be a similar situation to Tunisia, while Eritrea has gotten much worse. According to RWB, the government is "waging its propaganda war on social networks", attacking opposition websites and even trying to target over-vocal Eritreans abroad. In the wake of the uprisings the role of the Internet has shifted - governments are finally realising its power and what it can do when there are enough people using it, particularly when coupled with a reason to get angry. There's nothing to say other countries in Africa aren't limiting freedoms on the Internet; according to the OpenNet Initiative Sudan, Mauritania and Morocco are all guilty, but for the most part, things seem to be taking a turn for the better.

Freedom of the Internet is a great thing. It educates us, allows us to communicate and share, and occasionally laugh at stupid things. But most importantly, it gives us a voice, and when governments take away that voice they deserve to be held up and shamed by the international community. While it can be easy to stand on a soapbox and rant about freedoms when you've got them, spare a thought for the ones putting themselves in danger to get the same thing.

By Dan Swinhoe, Editorial Assistant, IDG Connect


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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