Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

Africa and the Internet: a 21st Century human rights issue?

By Nicole

Flickr Creative Commons | PerformImpact

By Rosebell Kagumire  | Christian Science Monitor | June 14, 2011 |

African leaders could allow freedom of expression, or they could mimic the Chinese model of building a ‘Great Firewall of China’ to shut down Internet systems that allow critical thinking. Last week the UN declared Internet access a basic human right. To many in African countries, which are still grappling with challenges ranging from health, infrastructure, unemployment, etc., this declaration may be difficult to relate to.

I am taking part in the Internet Freedom Fellows program funded by the US Department of State and managed by the US Mission in Geneva. The fellowship follows up on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pledge to find innovative ways to promote the use of the Internet in support of human rights. While in Geneva earlier this week, I took part in an event where Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, US Representative to the Human Rights Council,reiterated Mrs. Clinton’s statement that the Internet is “the public space of the 21st century.”

Many in Africa are yet to see the Internet as a basic right. Yet Ben Scott, Clinton’s policy adviser on innovation whom I had a chat with called the Internet “the first truly 21st Century human rights issue.”

We were looking at Internet freedom and before I had asked how this basic right would be realized for many in Africa. Mr. Scott said that just like mobile banking (MPesa, Mobile money) is doing tremendously well in Africa, Internet access will continue to be tied to mobile telephone penetration in Africa. He indicated that Africa’s mobile phone penetration has surpassed Europe’s yet it’s still at 40 percent. This makes the Internet and mobile phone market pose both an economic and political opportunity.

In most discussions it was clear that we have two types of freedoms related to the Internet; freedom to access Internet and freedom of expression on the Internet. World leading economies have thrived on information systems and making them accessible to all citizens, therefore increasing their participation in the economy. A connected society is going to be more prosperous and stable.

Many governments in Africa are moving to invest heavily in the laying down of Internet infrastructure. As more people on the continent are connected to the Internet, they will also seek a different kind of governance because of the access to information. This is what Scott called, a dictator’s dilemma.

“Everyone recognizes that future of economy is largely based on information infrastructure. So governments want populations connected but at the same time they want to control speech on these networks and it’s a dilemma,” Scott said. “Internet tends to shift power from centralized institutions to many leaders representing different communities. Governments who want to censor are fighting a battle against the nature of the technology,” Scott said.

So the dilemma faced by that despotic leader, whom we have in plenty on the continent, is political speech versus economic prosperity. Scott said: “You can’t have one and leave the other and that’s the exact dictator’s dilemma.”

This was well manifested in the recent protests in Uganda, when the government instructed the Internet service providers to shut down social media like Facebook and Twitter.

First, the telecom industry is one of the leaders in tax revenues in Uganda and provides a lot of jobs for the Ugandan youth in a country where the number of unemployed graduates has become worrying. In the face of such a directive companies had a lot at stake, most telecoms provide Internet and they feared a backlash. This directive was leaked to the press by people in the telecoms who were concerned that they would be the first victims of the backlash. So in the end the government didn’t achieve its mission. President Yoweri Museveni cannot choose to get the taxes from the telecoms, which help him run the country and at the same time easily pass directives to control information.

Clay Shirky, adjunct professor at New York University graduate program on Interactive Telecommunications said no other invention has ever threatened the Westphalian nation-state like the Internet has done. The states in the past were able to effectively control radio, newspapers, and TV, but the Internet is a challenge.“This is a cultural and political choice,” Shirky said. “Protecting freedom of speech is a governance challenge. Westphalia, where government controls everything, survived the 20th Century media innovations, we are going to see if they can survive the internet.”

Hindering access

Only 10 percent of Ugandans access the Internet, yet about 10 million of the 33 million Ugandans have mobile phones. The use of Internet is partly hampered by illiteracy levels as well as cost, but Uganda has a youthful population which will take up new information systems even with just post primary education.

There are real infrastructure problems hindering access to Internet in Africa but we are seeing more investment. According to ComputerWorld, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi have linked forces together on a $400 million investment in terrestrial fiber optic cables. The new network is expected to run close to 16,000 kilometers from southern Sudan to Tanzania’s border with Zambia. The terrestrial network called the East Africa Backhaul System will connect to the submarine fiber-optic cables on the East Africa coast.

However some governments have already moved to suppress freedom on the Internet. According to recent report from Freedom House, Ethiopia’s Internet is one of the least free in the world. Internet access has been denied and controlled through monopolizing the communications industry to curtail freedom of expression. In Ethiopia the few people that access the Internet that is government controlled cannot freely express themselves.

This kind of control is what my friend Ssozi described to me when we spoke about the Internet as a basic right declaration. He said as long as access to information is not a right, Internet as a basic human right will not benefit most.

The China way

Even with infrastructure in place, many worry that some governments in Africa may decide to go the way of China, which has put up what’s now famously called the “Great firewall of China.” It’s a deceptive path for African governments who may be considering following suit and having economic prosperity and also stifling freedoms of expression and speech.

China spends a lot of money to build firewalls that prevent free speech, but Scott believes this cannot easily be replicated. He says even with its economic might to maintain it alone will continue to cost China to block people from accessing information. The costs of bypassing the firewalls are significantly cheaper than putting one up, say observers.

In Africa, governments still have a hold on public broadcasting, which many people rely on in the absence of cheap, accessible Internet. So for Internet access as a basic right to be realized, or even for it to make a difference in the way citizens in Africa can hold their governments accountable, development budgets and strategies for both by governments and international development organizations must take this into consideration.

There also have to be efforts to ensure protection in the face of growing desire by governments to curtail freedom on the Internet in the wake of North Africa uprisings. We have seen the Internet play a key role in protests in Swaziland, Gabon, and Uganda to some extent.

At a recent meeting of bloggers organized by Google Africa and Global Voices, there was a general concern that many African governments are employing tactics of threatening Internet users directly instead of cutting off the Internet or attacking their sites, which could bring about immediate condemnation. In Uganda, journalist Timothy Kalyegira is the first person to be arrested and charged for an online article written in Uganda Record.

Scott said that in the Internet age there has to be a “move from government-to-government diplomacy to a people-to-people diplomacy.” When questioned on the recent Wikileaks case, Scott argued that there’s a need to balance state security and Internet freedom. Yet it’s in the same name of security that authoritarian government crackdown on their citizens.

Shirky says the debate on whether there can be Internet freedom is still very much open. “No country recognizes a universal right to speak. The negotiation around this kind of freedom is going dominate the next ten years.”

Africa’s future belongs to young Africans

By Abbas Gassem | Senior Product Manager | Yahoo! Europe

The Business & Human Rights Program was pleased that BHRP virtual team member, Abbas Gassem, was invited to participate in The President’s Forum with Young African Leaders; read on for his account of the event.

In early August, I was invited to participate in The President’s Forum with Young Africans Leaders held in Washington, D.C.  President Obama held a town hall meeting with forum delegates, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton personally gave a welcome address. The two and a half day summit included sessions on access to capital, freedom of expression through new technologies, youth involvement in democracy and governance, and advocacy.

This year is a monumental time for Africa with 17 countries celebrating 50 years of independence.  And the democracy bug is fitfully catching on. By the end of this year, a score of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries will have gone to the polls for an assortment of local, regional, and national elections.  This is a big year for African voters.

Africa is at a major junction, with colonialism and the fight for independence truly behind it. Yet Africa faces many challenges over the next 50 years.  These challenges are no small feat with poor governance, lack of opportunities for good education, and corruption holding back the rise of Africa. Despite all this, Africa is a continent full of potential. With sixty percent of the African population under the age of 25 and the growth of technology, it is time to break down old barriers.  The FIFA World Cup hosted in South Africa was a success and provides a platform of extraordinary promise for the future. The winds of change are blowing in Africa, driven from within rather than from the outside.  There is an aspiration for better governance, change from old tribal based society to one where ideas win over loyalty, and to be part of global economy that will all bring rapid and foreseen changes in Africa.

During the summit, I met fellow Africans who are eager for this change and who want to take charge of their own destiny.  America has the opportunity to support these aspirations and empower the African youth by supporting education, getting grassroots networks of young people connected, and helping spread technology to remote areas that have little opportunity for their voices to be heard.

I also had the pleasure to facilitate a session on freedom of expression through new technologies.  It is impressive to see how young people are using mobile technology and social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, to share their thoughts.  Technology will be a platform to deliver this change which should not be led by foreign governments or international institutions but rather by the people and for the people.  The more Africans who can bypass the gate keepers with technology, the sooner these aspirations will be realised.

An example of this is the Ushahidi crisis management platform, built by young Kenyans to map reports of violence after the election of 2007, and currently being used as a digital tool for social change across the world.   Another example is the telecommunications firm Safaricom’s highly successful mobile money transfer service, M-Pesa.  Mpesa (”money” in Swahili) is a mobile transfer solution that allows money transfers to be done by mobile customers who do not have a bank account. The service has facilitated over $4B in transactions in Kenya since its launch in late 2007 – and that’s in a country with adjusted annual per-capita income of under $1,700.

Despite all one hears about Africa with the corruption, famine and fighting, the future looks promising.  If you would like to connect with the Young African Leaders Forum, here is their Facebook group.

Abbas Gassem is a Senior Product Manager at Yahoo! Europe and the founder of InsideSomalia.

For more information on the Young African Leaders Forum, visit their website:

Africa’s Gay Activists Use Internet to Advance Homosexual Rights

By Tsering

Flickr Creative Commons | Les Chatfield

By Nico Colombant | Voice of America | June 15, 2010

African gay activists in Africa and in the diaspora are increasingly using the Internet to have their voices heard, while still trying to figure out how to advance homosexual rights on the continent.

One of the most popular blogs advocating gay rights in Africa is called Gay Uganda. Its author chooses to remain anonymous.

“I am somebody in the heart of Africa who has been lonely without the rest of the Internet, without the rest of the global sphere, talking about what I would like to talk about, with that kind of freedom,” he said from Kampala.”I cannot do it elsewhere.”

While harsher laws are being proposed against homosexuality across the continent, including in Uganda, the author of Gay Uganda says what he is doing helps Africa’s homosexual community.

“It started off as a way of venting, but then later I realized that it was a way of putting across to the rest of the world what our lives were more or less,” he said. “The things that have been happening around Kampala, in Uganda, and all over the continent – it is strengthening to me personally, that is why I do it.”

He says that in Kampala, very few people know he is gay. But online, he has a community of followers who support him. He adds that the types of articles he writes would never be allowed in traditional media.

“Society is more or less homophobic and the reporters come from the society. But also you have to consider that in a place like Uganda, you cannot write a positive story about gay people. That is a matter of fact,” he added.

Uganda’s Ethics and Integrity Minister James Nsaba Buturo said recently that the government is concerned about what he called the “mushrooming” number of gays and lesbians in the country. He said he wants a law enacted that would criminalize confessing to being a homosexual.

Even in African countries like Ghana, which are seen as being relatively tolerant, anti-homosexual activities, such as marches denouncing gays, are becoming more frequent.

Media and influential politicians and religious leaders often denounce homosexuality as Western contamination. And they say homosexuality is contrary to traditional family values.

More than three dozen countries in Africa, including Senegal, have laws criminalizing homosexuality. Selly Thiam, who lives in the United States, is a native of Senegal. She is the founder of the None on Record website, which records testimonies of gays, lesbians and transgender people from Africa, most of them anonymously.

Thiam says she hopes the website will be used to help change policies toward homosexuals.

“None on the Record is just at the beginning of understanding or even becoming conscious of how we fit into the larger movement,” said Thiam. “I think we will have more opportunities in the future to see how we can really impact and support the organizing that is going on in the continent and around the world in other LGBT communities as well.”

LGBT refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

Thiam says that although it is important for her to build contacts through the Internet, face-to-face interaction is also important, even if most pro-gay groups in Africa work underground.

“That is why I have to keep going back to work in concert with people who are organizing. It is an issue of safety, and something that I have to think about all the time. But I have to also continue to do my work,” Thiam added.

A columnist from the United States, Reverend Irene Monroe, says her own work and Internet outreach have put her in contact with many gays and lesbians in Africa like a woman from Kenya who recently wrote her an email.

“She says here, ‘I need encouragement. Here homosexuality is punishable by 14 years imprisonment and 28 strokes of the cane. “The church is also extremely hostile. Some suspected lesbians from my church were once beaten and burnt,’” Monroe said.

Gay activists in Africa say it is a very difficult process to advance homosexual rights, especially in difficult economic times, when scapegoats are used by politicians and religious leaders to divert attention.

Irene Monroe links discrimination to a lack of democracy and government policies toward HIV and AIDS.

“Countries that tend to be more open around addressing the issue of HIV/AIDS and have a lot more financial solvency and really do run more in terms of employing a democratic model, you will find in those small pockets throughout Africa and other parts of the world people are more tolerant in the different ways in which people express love,” she said. “And we see it here when we see rabid forms of conservatism here we find in most groups of people who are less tolerant of LGBT folks, it operates similarly believe it or not in Africa too. Culturally, it looks different. But the seed around what gives rise to the kind of homophobia that blossoms in the way it does, it is planted in the same soil.”

Gay activists say they hope those advocating homosexual rights eventually will succeed – one blog entry and appeal for understanding at a time.

Abbas Gassem of Inside Somalia on Social Media and Social Change


[Guest blogger Abbas Gassem, of Inside Somalia, (and Yahoo! employee) talks about his work, and the role of the Internet in supporting communication and information sharing across cultures.]

In June 2007, I founded, a news and social networking website focused on Somalia.

My motivations to start the website were due to the limited knowledge and a view of insignificance outsiders have about the Horn of Africa.

When people mention Somalia to me, they use such words as: pirates, failed state, Black Hawk Down, refugees, Extremist Islamists, poor, and clan politics. Whilst these words on the surface are true, it requires deeper analysis to fully understand the crisis taking place in the past 20 years.

Traditional media has limited space and time to highlight the problems of Somalia in depth, causing the lack of understanding about the region.

The Internet carries an immense power in shaping a nation’s agenda. The old gatekeepers of media; television, newspapers and radio, have a lesser role in the dispersal of information. aims to take advantage of the new media to educate the global community by bringing together an extensive resource of information.

We are living interesting times; never has it been easier, faster or cheaper to create and publish content.

It is important that people are able express their views and feel a sense of control of their destiny.

To what extent do these technologies contribute to conflict resolution?

All media have vital roles to play; the Internet in particular will play a pivotal part in bringing peace and addressing key issues of the reconstruction of Somalia.

On the conflict resolutions the Internet can:

Bring forth the voices of moderates, “the silent majority”;

Hold the Somali government & International community accountable to the people;

Be a platform to discuss & exchange views to building peaceful & prosperous society;

Looking beyond the current state of conflict, the Internet will serve all sectors of society, namely:

To ensure that the government is transparent and open to the people;

To help lift people out of poverty by giving low cost access to educational and healthcare.

To connect businesses and consumers to the global marketplace.

It will be a long journey, mistakes will probably be made, but through the Internet and the networking of billions of people, an unprecedented force for the good can be achieved.

-Abbas Gassem, Founder and Editor, Inside Somalia and Senior Manager, APG and Business Optimisation, Yahoo! UK

The OpenNet Initiative Presents New Findings in Africa


Flickr Creative Commons | Future Atlas

Flickr Creative Commons | Future Atlas

by Jillian York

The OpenNet Initiative (ONI) has released updated reports on Ethiopia and Zimbabwe and new reports on Uganda and Nigeria, where ONI tested for the first time in 2008 and 2009. All four profiles can be accessed at:

Many governments across sub-Saharan Africa view the Internet as a key tool for development and are developing ICT policies accordingly. While the region has a history of media abuses and restrictions on freedom of the press, ONI testing found evidence of consistent filtering in only one of the countries tested: Ethiopia.

Filtering in Ethiopia was found to be substantial in regard to both political and conflict/security sites. Ethiopian authorities have also blocked two major blogging platforms, Blogger and Nazret, suggesting political bloggers are the prime targets of censure.

Today’s release of new data and analysis follows the ONI’s May 2007 release of its first global survey and the subsequent publication of Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering (MIT Press, 2008), and joins recently updated reports on China and the Middle East and North Africa. In the coming months, ONI will release additional, updated reports on countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Europe, and Latin America, as well as on North America and on Australia and New Zealand. These reports will provide the analytical basis for a book to be released in early 2010, Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights and Rule in Cyberspace.

African governments move to monitor Internet communications


Senegal Bus EbeleBy Michael Malakata
August 26, 2009 | IDG News Service

Southern African countries including Zambia, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe are grappling with the question of whether to intercept and monitor mobile phone calls as well as Internet and other electronic services including communications over social networks.

While some countries are opening the telecom sector to all forms of services and social networks, others are closing up, claiming Internet and mobile phones are putting the security of the countries at risk. A number of laws and regulations are being developed by some Southern African countries that give powers to regulators, service providers and government security agents to censor Web sites and intercept mobile and Net-based calls.

But the technology sector is warning that the censorship laws are certain to scare aware investments by regional and international service providers that may fear that investing in such countries restricts their freedom to roll out new services, including 3G technology.

The Malawi Communications and Regulatory Authority (Macra) has announced that it has passed a new regulation under which it will start monitoring the Internet and intercepting all electronic communications throughout the country. Macra is Malawi’s telecom sector regulator. But it is the first time that the regulator is being given censorship powers by the government.

ISPs in Malawi will also be pressed by the new law to monitor social-networking sites including Twitter, Facebook and the Malawiana — a local social-network site — and any so-called “illegal content” in e-mail communications by Malawians on Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail and other e-mail services.

The law also means that digital satellite televisions will also be censored in Malawi.

Malawian Minister of Information Leckford Thotho said the government passed a law creating a new tool for censorship because the number of people with Internet and mobile phones access has increased over the past years.

“As the number of Internet users has been growing steadily over the past years, there is now a need to monitor what people were doing on the Internet to ensure that they do not involve themselves in unlawful acts,” Thotho said.

Internet users in Malawi are already complaining that the Malawian government will be violating their privacy by reading e-mail and listening to their conversations.

Malawi has become the second country in Southern Africa after Namibia to develop Internet and mobile censorship laws. In July Namibian lawmakers passed the spy law, which calls for interception centers to be manned by secret service officers who can screen e-mail, SMS (short message system) texts and Internet usage, including banking services.

The Zambian government, on the other hand, said it has developed laws that allow people to communicate without government interference. The new Zambian law further allows service providers to deploy any form of technology on their networks that will allow subscribers to have access to services available around the world.

Zambian President Rupiah Banda said Zambian government was committed to providing an ICT regulatory environment that encourages private sector participation in the Zambian economy. Aware that spy laws scare away international telecom investors, Banda said he is confident that the current ICT reforms would generate national development through the use of ICT.

RSS Open Net Initiative

  • Internet Censorship and Control Papers June 19, 2013
    The Berkman Center is pleased to share that Berkman Fellow Hal Roberts and Steven J. Murdoch of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory have edited a collection of papers on Internet Censorship and Control that are now available online as an open access collection at They write, "The In […]
  • Berkman Buzz: July 20, 2012 July 20, 2012
    The Berkman Buzz is selected weekly from the posts of Berkman Center people and projects.To subscribe, click here. We are delighted to announce a Call for Papers for The Kinder & Braver World Project: Research Series (danah boyd and John Palfrey, editors) presented by the Berkman Center and the Born This Way Foundation, and supported by the John D. & […]
  • Berkman Buzz: July 6, 2012 July 6, 2012
    The Berkman Buzz is selected weekly from the posts of Berkman Center people and projects.To subscribe, click here. The Berkman Center is hiring! We are now accepting applications for a number of technically-inclined leadership positions. Technology can't improve schools all on its own When it comes to using educational technology in the classroom, it se […]
  • OpenNet Initiative (ONI) Year in Review 2011 April 24, 2012
    The Berkman Center for Internet & Society is pleased to share the OpenNet Initiative (ONI)'s annual roundup of top instances of filtering, surveillance, and information warfare around the globe: 2011 Year in Review 2011 was an eventful year with respect to filtering and surveillance. Among the year's most well-known events are the introduction […]
  • Berkman Buzz: April 6, 2012 April 6, 2012
    The Berkman Buzz is selected weekly from the posts of Berkman Center people and projects.To subscribe, click here. Yochai Benkler defends Anonymous in Foreign Affairs Seeing Anonymous primarily as a cybersecurity threat is like analyzing the breadth of the antiwar movement and 1960s counterculture by focusing only on the Weathermen. Anonymous is not an organ […]