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'Digital authoritarianism' threatening basic rights in Africa, study says

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From internet shutdowns and online surveillance to social media taxes and arrests for anti-government posts, “digital authoritarianism” is a threat to basic freedoms and rights in many African countries, researchers said on Tuesday.

A study by the African Digital Rights Network (ADRN) focusing on 10 countries found governments used a plethora of measures over the last two decades to stifle people’s ability to organise, voice opinions and participate in governance online.

“Our research shows online civic spaces are being closed through various repressive actions, including unwarranted arrests, unwarranted surveillance and various forms of intimidation,” said Juliet Nanfuka from the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and member of the ADRN.

“Self-censorship online is being fueled by financial restrictions and online content regulation. All of these actions inhibit freedom of expression and access to information, which are fundamental to a flourishing civic space,” Nanfuka, a digital rights researcher, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

According to the World Bank, internet penetration in sub-Saharan Africa has surged to 25% of the population in 2019 against less than 1% in 2000.

The new research, which covered South Africa, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt - documented 115 examples of technologies, tactics and techniques used to control or censor the internet.

The most common methods used by governments were digital surveillance, disinformation, internet shutdowns, introduction of laws reducing digital rights, and arrests for online speech, the study found.

Other strategies employed included bulk SMS bans, mandatory registration of bloggers, price hikes and social media taxes, mandatory identification for mobile SIM registration and for internet cafe use, it added.

On surveillance, for example, researchers found all the countries were using internet surveillance and mobile intercept technologies, or artificial intelligence to monitor particular people using keywords.

It also found had become increasingly common for governments to shut down the entire internet or mobile phone system.

The number of intentional internet shutdowns by African governments rose to 25 in 2020 from 21 in 2019, with Algeria, Ethiopia and Sudan the worst-affected countries, said the study.

Disinformation was also increasingly common both from private companies as well as from governments.

But researchers also found greater pushback against government moves to repress online activity.

The report documented 65 examples of people making creative use of digital technologies such as SMS, social media, encrypted messaging and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to voice opposition and open new civic spaces online.

Other steps to open civic spaces online included citizens using hashtag movements such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria or the #RhodesMustFall campaign in South Africa.

However, governments still found ways to curtail their efforts and shut down new spaces, said one of the study’s authors.

“This ‘digital authoritarianism’ has fundamental implications for democratic societies,” Tony Roberts, research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and co-author of the report, said in a statmement.

“(That’s) why it’s so important that we raise awareness and build capacity across Africa to promote and protect citizens’ digital rights.”

Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org

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