African media and civic activists concerned over govts’ clampdown on the internet

By Tafadzwa Muranganwa

JOHANNESBURG – Deliberations by journalists and civic activists across Africa  at the recently held ‘Business of Truth’ conference in Johannesburg, South Africa  were centred on the need to safeguard the internet from  government control  in bid to promote democracy, transparency and accountability.

The two day event which was organised by World Learning  and  Digital Communication Network courtesy of the U.S Department  of State office of Citizen Exchanges saw journalists, digital media entrepreneurs  and civic activists drawn  from over 10 African countries that included Zimbabwe, Zambia,South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Lesotho just to mention a few.

Presenting on ‘Information in the digital age, should social media be banned?” , Richard Mulonga , Founder and CEO Bloggers  of Zambia  argued that the internet is the  only free available space for citizens in most  African countries as most of the traditional media outlets are fettered.

“The internet is the only source remaining for citizens to engage freely since the traditional media spaces are closed for certain voices, ” he said.

Mulonga went on to say that the battle for democracy has now shifted from the physical space to the internet as most African countries are increasing government surveillance on   citizens   activities’ online.

Zimbabwe Centre for Media and Information Literacy (ZCMIL) director Thomas Sithole while concurring with  Mulonga  proffered the need for journalists and civic activists from the African countries to coalesce against the clampdown on internet by governments through taxation and  retrogressive  laws governing internet use.

“We have noticed how the digital space is under siege in Tanzania,Uganda and Zambia with the introduction of laws that discourage internet use and this is a new war which need journalists and activists to be proactive.

“We should not be reactionary but we also need to take the struggle beyond our borders,” urged Sithole who is also a veteran journalist and former editor of The Herald.

Mr Jimmy Kainja ,a  media and communications lecturer with University of Malawi believes there is a ploy by most African governments to stifle freedom of expression by controlling the internet in the guise of sifting fake news.

“In the wake of fake news which in most of our countries  proliferates  because governments are not responsive to citizens’ critical issues ,there is a tendency  by  governments to act on decimating fake news  when it’s a ploy to silence social media,” asserts Mr Jimmy Kainja.

Social media is a  tool that can be an enabler of community development , according to Ms Prossy Kawala who is the director of Centre for Media Literacy and Community Development(CEMCOD) in Uganda.

“In Uganda we have a testimony on how social media can impact on people’s livelihoods   with a case study of how some young people mobilised resources for the construction of a water tank in their area which has the potential of turning around the lives of many villagers in the community,” she said.

Fears are abound  that most African governments want to thwart freedom of expression being promoted with the coming of the internet. Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan President early this year enacted  a social media tax  to curb what he called ‘serious gossiping’ among citizens which led to wide-spread protests.

Tanzania is another country that has set stringent requirement for online channels as they are now required to fork out nearly  two million Tanzanian shillings (930 US dollars) in registration and licensing fees. They must  store contributors’ details for a year  and have means to identify their sources and disclose financial sponsors. Cyber cafes must install surveillance cameras, and all owners of electronic mobile devices, including phones, have to protect them with a password.

In Zambia, internet based calls are levied after the government signed a statutory instrument and Zimbabwe has the Cyber-Crime and Cyber-Security bill which media and civic organisations have argued that it carries vague statutes that may stifle freedom of expression and other fundamental human rights if it is passed into law.