By Jackline Akello
The Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) is a landmark event that convenes various stakeholders from the internet freedom, governance and online rights arenas in Africa and beyond to deliberate on gaps, issues and opportunities for advancing privacy, access to information, freedom of expression, non-discrimination and the free flow of information online on the continent.
The Forum responds to rising challenges to the enjoyment of internet freedom in various countries, including arrests and intimidation of online users, internet disruptions, and a proliferation of laws and regulations that undermine the potential of digital technology to drive socio-economic and political development on the continent.
FIFA strives to put internet freedom on the agenda of key actors including policy makers, regulators, human rights defenders, law enforcement representatives, and the media, paving way for broader work on advancing online rights in Africa and promoting the multi-stakeholder model for internet governance.
The engagement at the Forum aims to reflect the current trends and concerns in access and usage of the internet and related technologies on the continent at any given point in time. As such, each year has its theme based on the state of Internet Freedom in Africa at that point.
This year, on 23-26 September, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) hosted the sixth Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which since 2018, has witnessed unprecedented internet reforms.
Many organizations and private individuals were in attendance including (but not limited to); Co-Creation Hub (CCHub), Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN), Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Legal Resources Center (LRC), Article 19, Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), Innovation Hub (iHub), Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT), BudgIT, Amnesty International, Ford Foundation, Spitfire Strategies among others.
CIPIT was also represented at the Forum and took part in various discussions and seminars. In addition, CIPIT had an exhibition space to promote, discuss and advocate for one of its key projects CYRILLA (https://cyrilla.org/), which is a global initiative aimed at integrating digital rights laws across the globe. CIPIT is the African partner for this Collaborative which aims at fostering digital rights literacy across Africa.
CIPIT reached out to participants from various regions of Africa to collaborate with it in this Collaborative by providing digital rights laws, policies, regulations and case law from their various jurisdictions to be uploaded on the CYRILLA digital rights database (ICTPolicyAfrica.org).
The Forum commenced with invitation only pre-sessions on 23rd and 24th September, with the main event kicking off on 25th September and closing on 26th September. The 25th and 26th sessions were open to all participants.
Topics of discussion revolved around key internet trends in Africa, and participants from different countries shared experiences from their jurisdictions including:
- How some African governments have been working to stifle internet freedom through using repressive laws to limit internet freedom, internet throttling, surveillance, and mass data collection without adequate data protection policies.
- Digital rights infringing laws which have become commonplace in Africa, where countries have introduced provisions providing for state surveillance, interception of private communication, online censorship, among other concerning trends. These laws are usually introduced under the pretext of ensuring national security and fighting terrorism and cybercrime. It was evident that most African countries have done this through laws related to Computer Misuse and/or Cybercrime.
- The introduction of Digital ID in various African jurisdictions and the challenges it presents to digital rights in these regions.
- Network disruption being employed to stifle freedom of expression and access to information. These disruptions have been initiated around election times, public protests and during exams. In a number of cases, security agencies have worked with national communications regulators to order the disruption, most citing national security or public order considerations.
- Taxation of social media platforms by some African governments to undermine their citizen’s use of the internet. In some instances, it was reported that such measures have been used to limit how many citizens can access digital technologies and in other instances, to raise revenue for the government from the telecom sector.
Despite the above adverse trends, there were notable developments in some countries that provided positive examples and the hope for continued growth of internet freedom. The three major developments included robust advocacy by non-state actors, adoption of progressive legislation (that promote internet freedoms), and repeal of regressive legislation. Malawi for example, organized their first civic and political protest in 2011 against bad governance and poor service delivery in the country; the Constitutional court of Uganda in a landmark decision in 2004, declared null and void section 50 of the Penal Code which made publication of false news a criminal offence; in Kenya, constitutional challenges at the High Court spearheaded by civil society have over the past years led to successful repeal or suspension of unconstitutional legislation; the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), Legal and Human Rights Center (LHRC) and other groups challenged the constitutionality of the Cybercrime Act in the High Court; among other countries.
In conclusion, it is this authors view that Forums like FIFA are very beneficial as they allow Africans and various stakeholders from various jurisdictions to do a comparative analysis of internet freedom within their jurisdictions and strategize on measures that can be used to ensure protection of internet freedoms by African states. In line with this, the CIPESA report on the State of Internet Freedom, 2019 launched during the closing of the Forum, made various recommendations in protection of internet freedoms in Africa. It recommended that governments should: respect human rights and freedoms enshrined in their Constitutions and International laws; stop the use of internet control policies, measures and practices; adopt and promote multi stakeholder approach to ensure transparent, inclusive and open stakeholder engagement in the development of internet policies; define clearly in policies and laws, the acceptable circumstances in which internet controls may be applied and finally ensure that there are sufficient laws and policies to protect the right to privacy and personal data.
 CIPESA, State Of Internet Freedom In Africa 2019 (September 2019)