Freedom of Expression in a Digital Era: Eastern Africa Perspectives

One of the indicators of a healthy media landscape is how people exercise their freedom of expression. The internet and digital technologies provide crucial spaces for people to seek and exchange information and to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

In Eastern Africa, several countries have made commendable strides to guarantee this fundamental freedom, but a lot needs to be done to ensure no breaches or violations of this freedom.

Compared to other regions in the continent, Eastern Africa has a relatively lower internet penetration, which, in January 2023, stood at 23%.1 Despite this, Eastern Africa has made notable progress toward investment in digital platforms, policies and infrastructure, enabling growing connections even to traditionally underserved populations. Notable regional investments include submarine fibre optic broadband, 2 which has significantly lowered access costs for the wider public.

The internet is a useful tool

By facilitating the exercise of a wide range of human rights, both online and offline, the internet has been particularly useful during elections and protests. The importance of the internet was particularly noticed during the COVID-19 pandemic when digital media was widely used to highlight rights violations by state actors against members of the public. Social media has also provided avenues for public discourse on pertinent issues in these countries, thus enabling the public to conduct checks and balances on an otherwise errant political class. This is healthy, particularly in fostering democratic and transparent governance.

The African Media Barometer (AMB) Trends Analysis Report provides adequate references to successful cases of citizen engagement in political and social development causes, which have, at times, yielded positive results.

In one such example from Uganda, citizens took to social media to condemn the extravagance of government spending when it was announced that luxury vehicles would be purchased for the speaker of the national assembly and the deputy speaker.

In Tanzania, social media has provided an ample and convenient space for citizens to exercise their freedom of expression, while digital broadcasting has extended viewer numbers.

Social media has also been seen to influence content in mainstream media, which points to the potency of these platforms in agenda setting (page 65, AMB 2022). 3 In fact, legacy media acknowledges that it no longer breaks the news.

The freedom of expression is protected in various articles and declarations in the six individual countries of the region and globally. Virtually every national constitution on the wider continent has freedom of expression provisions, and some African countries have specific provisions for freedom of the press.

Notably, the resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council of the UN General Assembly on 26 September 2019 asserted 4 that "the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online."

Abuse of laws and policies

Various challenges have hampered the enjoyment of freedom of expression in Eastern African countries. Some of these have stemmed from the deliberate and systematic abuse of laws and policies guiding internet use as governments move to address misinformation, hate speech, social unrest, and other vices associated with internet use. This has negatively impacted the ability of internet users to freely express themselves online on various social and political issues.

Despite progressive laws guaranteeing personal freedoms, particularly in terms of free speech, parallel legislations seek to rein in errant usage of digital platforms, mostly passed in the guise of protecting national security or preserving human dignity. For instance, various constitutions across the region have explicitly spelt out freedom of expression as a fundamental right, yet other legislations seem to contradict this. Some laws appear to have been deliberately crafted to stifle free and unhindered expression on digital platforms and social media. An example is Kenya's Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act 2018, which significantly restricts freedom of expression and spells out prohibitive fines for anyone found guilty. As noted in the AMB 2011/2021, 5 the Media Act of 2013 and the Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Act of 2013 have tended to inhibit freedom of expression.

Across the borders in Uganda, the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill 2022 is one contentious statute which seeks to criminalise various uses of computers and digital technologies and largely curtails online freedom of expression rights. Such controversial legislation has often led to outcry and calls for governments to revisit these laws in the interests of preserving citizens’ rights. However, government operatives have often displayed apathy to these calls. In a recent example from 2022, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) raised concerns over proposed Ugandan legislation that sought to criminalise what was termed “misuse” of social media. 6 It is apparent, though, that attempts by CPJ to reach Ugandan politicians and government officials to engage on this subject largely bore no fruit.

As a further testament to government high-handedness in the region, there have been internet shutdowns in some countries – notably Ethiopia and Tanzania – ostensibly to muzzle public discourse, particularly during election periods.

Ethiopia is notorious for mass internet shutdowns in response to political unrest. Even though the AMB 2010 (page 28) 7 reported unrestricted access by citizens to the media through the internet, there has been a systematic muzzling of the internet over the years by the state, often under the guise of upholding national security interests. An example was in June 2020 when the regime shut down the internet in reaction to public outcry. In 2023 alone, Ethiopia had shut down the internet at least 3 times. 8 Uganda has also shut down the internet in the past, at times even citing various statutes.

Although governments have not always resorted to internet shutdowns, there have been subtle tactics of exerting state control over internet use. In the case of Kenya, the government explicitly pledged that it would not shut down the internet during the 2017 general elections but would instead monitor social media. 9 This came amid concerns among Kenyans that the government would emulate other governments in the region, such as Uganda, which had shut down popular social media platforms citing security concerns. While the Kenyan approach would appear less restrictive in comparison, it still invoked the uneasy feeling of a government out to inordinately police social media with the aim of fishing out commentaries it deemed inappropriate.

Although the six countries in the region have made steps to ensure the affordability and accessibility of the internet, underserved areas remain, particularly in marginalised or remote rural regions. This has had the effect of cutting off certain demographics, including women, the young, the disabled, and the poor.

In addition, interventions such as the digital tax imposed on mobile phones in Uganda are also detrimental to the broader efforts to increase access to digital platforms. Uganda further imposed (albeit unsuccessfully) an Over-The-Top (OTT) tax, later replaced with a 12% tax on internet data.

Another indicator of freedom of expression in the digital sphere is privacy and data protection. It is noted that three countries (Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda) have seen the enactment of data protection laws. These positive efforts have, however, been overshadowed by the wanton development and use of digital contact tracing applications.

There have been instances of governments criminalising online expression, with Tanzania being notably harsh in the region. To mitigate the abuse of this freedom, there are a number of recommendations, which include the repeal of contentious laws governing computer use, governments should comply with their international, regional, and national declarations governing rights to expression on digital media, and refrain from criminalising free speech. Judiciaries should also step forward to ensure that human rights are adequately protected in the digital environment.

Increased advocacy

As proposed in the AMB Trends Analysis Report 2011/2021 (page 28), there should be increased advocacy for press freedom. Additional interventions such as improving digital literacy and expanding electricity coverage could also increase the reach and coverage of digital platforms, thus enabling greater participation in governance and development among citizens in these countries. 10

Not all is lost. There have been noteworthy interventions by governments to improve discourse in social media and enhance hygiene in the wider digital space. Recently, Kenya launched a national coalition to fight against harmful content on digital platforms. 11 The initiative ‘Social Media for Peace’ seeks to develop and implement new solutions to address hate speech and disinformation while considering linguistic, cultural, social, economic, and political dimensions of relevant local contexts in the moderation of social media content.

Uganda has commendably made efforts to promote internet access and use among otherwise remote regions of the country through its Rural Communications Development Fund (RCDF). The Ugandan government has also been working with development partners to expand access to high-speed and affordable internet and strengthen digital inclusion in the country. Such efforts go a long way towards ensuring that critical infrastructure is within reach of the wider population as a first step towards fostering inclusivity in the digital space.

About the author

Joseph Maina is a freelance journalist based in the Kenyan town of Naivasha. He holds a BA in journalism from the University of Nairobi.

The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).

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