By John Masuku
Although the internet makes it difficult for authoritarian regimes to control what people say, governments still try to censor speech, illegally surveil their citizens or even shut down websites. A pan-African school trains future leaders to fight all that.
Internet shutdowns, illegal surveillance, censorship and general infringement of people’s rights in cyberspace are not uncommon in Africa.
There are numerous examples of tempering with people’s freedoms including levying internet usage beyond ordinary people’s affordability. Last year, in Tanzania and Uganda heavy taxes were imposed on bloggers and content creators, threatening many out of business.
China has also been aiding several African countries including Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sudan, Nigeria and Egypt to block their internet sites, thus helping autocrats across the continent to muzzle their citizens online.
Last January, Zimbabwe was faced with a total shutdown following a series of violent protests over hikes of basic food prices. Challenges related to domain registration also have to be resolved, for example, in Namibia, where an individual is the sole holder of rights to a national internet domain as the government has unsuccessfully struggled to take charge.
The African School of Internet Governance (AfriSIG) seeks to address these challenges by equipping people with facts and information to fully grasp internet governance principles and, implicitly, their digital rights.
Proffering African Solutions
AfriSIG is anchored in a rich curriculum that tackles concepts, issues and institutions related to internet governance. The theme of the school changes every year, says Koliwe Majama, organizer of AfriSIG since 2017. The course has thus far covered issues such as internet architecture, infrastructure, standards and cybersecurity. It discusses effective approaches to governance, particularly those involving more stakeholders, and keeps track of emerging issues in this field. One of the course’s core strengths is the practical part that engages participants in internet-related problem-solving, which prepares fellows to work even in very difficult environments.
Half of AfriSIG’s participants are women as the school’s organizers pay serious attention to gender balance. Although the language of instruction is English, participants from French and Portuguese speaking countries regularly join in.
The school is designed to indirectly encourage governments to open up their media environment to information sharing and dissemination of opinions and ideas that could ultimately empower citizens to better defend their digital rights. Guided by The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms (AfDec) adopted in 2016 by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, a quasi-judicial body, AfriSIG is a brainchild of the Association of Progressive Communications (APC), an international network of NGOs with a history of nearly 30 years.
“The Internet has made it extremely difficult for some undemocratic governments to control what people are supposed to hear and discuss,”
says Majama. “The control that they have had on the media for many years is diminishing. So the curriculum focuses on access to information and free expression as we devise how best the internet should be governed in Africa.”
The 2019 school, the seventh to date, was held in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. It drew in 45 participants from 30 countries, selected out of 400 applicants. Previous schools have been held in South Africa (twice), Mauritius, Ethiopia, Egypt and Tanzania. Deutsche Welle Akademie, a German media development group, and Ford Foundation, a private American grant-maker, funded the 2019 event.
The 2019 AfriSIG practicum consisted of a simulation exercise where NGO representatives, government, technologists, the business community, academia and observers worked together to prepare feedback for a high-level report issued this year by the UN.
“The multi-stakeholder concept has been put to test because you have governments that are used to formulating policy on their own, not being interrogated through consultative processes and reminded of the values and commitments made at continental and global levels,” Majama explained.
It sometimes works. In Nigeria, she said, a digital rights bill was introduced following lobbying by Paradigm Initiative and the Media Rights Agenda, two APC members that help run AfriSIG and whose staff includes AfriSIG alumni.
Future Game Changers?
The knowledge imparted at AfriSIG has a wide range of uses from recycling e-waste to improving advocacy. Morisala Moromoke, a participant from Nigeria, sees potential in “reusing e-waste to build computers, smart devices and other electronic devices, which will in turn reduce the negative environmental impact that comes as a result of improper disposals.” That is likely to lead to lower prices for electronic devices, which will mean “affordable computers, smartphones and other devices for everyone, especially for the unconnected, to be able to access the internet.”
Thomas Sithole, a participant from a rural community development project in southern Zimbabwe, says that AfriSIG taught him to uplift the incapacitated and voiceless. “I am already working to improve synergy building, collaboration with different media, especially soon-to-be-licensed community radio stations and community information centers in rural areas,” he said.
For Tomiwa Ilori of South Africa, the biggest takeaway from AfriSIG was the advocacy training. Ilori says that the school has created
“an opportunity for the continent to engage in the future of internet governance with a diverse and eager cohort of leaders in the internet governance space.”
He expects advocacy programs at continental level to influence internet governance policies that would benefit all the society, including marginalized communities.
Back to the Grassroots
However, internet governance is still a new topic in many communities and even among policymakers. Basic education focused on principles thus remains the main priority for Africa’s internet freedom activists.
African civil society organizations agreed through AfriSIG and the African Internet Governance Forum (AIG), a UN-led initiative, to work on building a set of parameters and yardsticks that would ensure
“an open, democratic and accessible internet on the continent,”
Majama said. These parameters should not be copycats from other parts of the world. Instead, they should address practical challenges African societies are confronted with and be easily understood by the general public.
The next step will be the revision of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa of 2002, a reference point for jurisprudence in Africa, which needs to be readily adjusted to today’s realities.
John Masuku is a Zimbabwe-based broadcast journalist and Executive Director of Radio Voice of the People (VOP). He is a fellow of the Center for Media Data and Society (CMDS) at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. John can be contacted at email@example.com or via Twitter: @john_masuku