The nexus between internet freedom and media freedom: an African outlook

According to ITU (2021) Facts and Figures, internet use in Africa between 2019 and 2021 increased by 23%, with young people (40%) more likely to be connected than older people (27%).

According to ITU (2021) Facts and Figures, internet use in Africa between 2019 and 2021 increased by 23%, with young people (40%) more likely to be connected than older people (27%). Despite the growing number of internet users, the continent still lags in online access, with only 33% of Africans using the internet, compared to 87% in Europe, 61% in Asia-Pacific, 66% in the Arab States and 81% in the Americas.

We are in a period of profound societal change and disruption, almost a tectonic shift, brought on by the rapid expansion of digital communication infrastructure and the exponential adoption of digital technology. The digital era has expanded the boundaries and definitions of fundamental human rights, such as the right to information, freedom of expression, and privacy. Indeed, the increasing penetration of new and emerging information and communication technologies (ICT), including the internet, has transformed journalism and the communication sectors. This has enabled more people to communicate, seek and create information, organise communities of shared interest, and express themselves. The new technologies have broken traditional communication barriers and ended the monopoly in the flow of information that was the preserve of the traditional or legacy media, specifically print and broadcast. For traditional media outlets to remain viable, according to Article 19's Right to Blog report, they have had to restructure to include internet and social media platforms for information sharing and audience engagement, with several journalists turning into online content creators as bloggers for their media houses or in their individual capacity.

This is, however, due to the internet’s unique characteristics and distinctive features. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression asserts that:

"Unlike any other medium, the internet facilitated the ability of individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders. By vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is an ‘enabler’ of other human rights, the internet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole."

Insofar as freedom of expression is concerned, the internet presents a compelling platform for decentralising information and institutional control. At its best, it acts as a leveller to access knowledge. Accordingly, digital and social media compete with traditional media as both sources of information and influencers of perceptions. These platforms enable journalists to spread information quickly with maximum reach and influence, and allow ordinary citizens to contribute to the news cycle.

However, as the Special Rapporteur acknowledges, "like all technological inventions, the internet can be misused to cause harm to others." As growing portions of journalistic activity take place online and as social media is largely unregulated, Africa has not become a safer place for those expressing critical opinions. The internet’s shortcomings, such as disseminating and amplifying misinformation, disinformation and hate speech, have provided some governments with a convenient excuse to clamp down on online communication and expression. Although information can now reach a broader audience swiftly, threats such as violence, intimidation, prosecution for lawful speech, judicial harassment and surveillance of those reporting continue unabated in the digital era.

Indeed, governments in several African countries have initiated measures, including enacting laws and policies to increase control and restrict digital civic space. This is done by enabling the surveillance and interception of communication, the registering and licensing of online content creators, and limiting the use of encryption. These policies and practices, many of which lack safeguards against abuse, have harmed the practice of journalism and the safety of journalists and pose many challenges to media freedom in Africa.

Against the backdrop of internet shutdowns and disruptions, it can be easy to lose sight of other digital rights violations within Africa, particularly the surveillance and arrests of journalists or how internet shutdowns affect the work of journalists. It has become an expected occurrence across the continent, from Algeria through to Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Chad and Zambia, for journalists and activists to be arrested for their views online. The years 2016-2020 saw numerous government arrests of citizens and bloggers. However, 2021 witnessed a far more severe onslaught of online journalists in Africa.

In 2021, 75 African journalists were imprisoned or detained by their governments in 12 countries. These violations were aggravated by attacks on individual journalists, including extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances and imprisonment, with incidents recorded in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Morocco, Rwanda and Somalia. Furthermore, the African Media Barometer (AMB) Analysis of Trends in its AMBs for 28 Countries over 11 Years from 2011 to 2021 indicates that most African countries have fallen behind in providing adequate regulation of digital media. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also notes that press freedom violations are common on the continent and include arbitrary internet censorship, arrests of journalists on the grounds of combating cybercrime, fake news or terrorism, and acts of violence against media personnel that usually go entirely unpunished. Indeed, being an online journalist is fast becoming one of the most dangerous jobs in Africa.

Furthermore, the clampdown on journalists working digitally also extended to citizen journalists. In the heat of political protests and elections, citizen journalists are often the first on the scene to capture and share pictures of police brutality on social media, actions which have incurred jail time and fines across Africa. Elections and protests also routinely trigger internet shutdowns in many African countries, hampering online journalists' ability to do their job.

Freedom of expression is a bellwether for other human rights around the world because the state of this freedom is a good indicator of other human rights. Journalists, because of the nature of their profession, are guardians of freedom of expression and the conscience of society. As such, the attacks on journalists can be seen as an attack on all human rights.

The world is still searching for solutions to internet shutdowns. In Africa, civil society groups have explored avenues such as litigation to make governments accountable for internet disruptions in their territories. The available evidence shows that these efforts are yet to have the desired effect on government behaviour.

Regarding attacks and surveillance of journalists, the impunity of governments across Africa has only been emboldened despite several efforts from human rights organisations and pressures from international partners to stop the abuse. Although much progress has been made to promote freedom of expression, with governments in Kenya, Ivory Coast and Liberia rolling back laws which were instruments of silencing free speech, these outcomes seem a drop in the ocean when set against the scale of violations of freedom of expression on the continent.

However, it is essential to emphasise that much progress has been made. Some successful legal challenges to laws impinging on free speech in Africa in 2022 might have been considered improbable in previous years. Nevertheless, for digital rights to have a solid grounding, civil society must find innovative ways of challenging the liberty of African governments to agree to international human rights codes and have domestic laws which guarantee freedom of expression yet still execute digital rights violations.

During the advent of the internet and particularly social media, there seemed to be an initial aversion to the revolutionary effect of the internet on how media work was done, and conventional media practitioners initially distanced themselves from ‘online sources’ and ‘online journalism’. However, embracing internet technologies quickly became unavoidable. The challenge now is to see internet freedom as media freedom, as much news consumption now happens online. However, it is extremely difficult to work as a journalist in the face of continuous internet disruptions, censorship, and other forms of digital rights violations.

The needed conversation has to be deepened, and questions must be asked on the messaging and effectiveness of internet freedom advocacy, especially in this age of citizen journalism. There is a need to see the nexus and situate internet freedom as the new media freedom. This is crucial within the African context because the internet revolution has limited the power of African governments to clamp down on citizens and journalists by expanding the space for information flow and democratising how people access news and information. The media must now work harder with internet freedom advocates to defend the integrity and openness of the internet. When Paradigm Initiative, with support from Gambia Press Union, hosted an internet policy workshop in July 2017 in Banjul, Gambia, participants identified the following roles for the media in Internet Freedom Advocacy:

  1. The media have the responsibility to speak up when violations happen online.
  2. Advocate reform of media laws to reflect new realities.
  3. Be at the forefront of approaches to tackle hate speech and fake news and not allow legislation to be subjected to political manipulations.

The list is not exhaustive. The takeaway, however, is that internet freedom advocacy is not a job for only professional internet freedom advocates. The media needs to play a significant role in supporting ongoing work by enlisting as internet freedom advocates so that the sanctity of press freedom remains protected even as governments across Africa seek to strengthen their grip on the internet and dominate internet governance for political ends.

About the Author

Muhammed Bello Buhari is a Nigerian-based digital rights activist, freelance journalist and fact-checker with a keen interest in media freedom, digital rights, and internet governance. He is a fellow of the West Africa School of Internet Governance (WASIG).

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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