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Digital rights are human rights, even during elections

By | Advocacy, Digital Rights, Uncategorized

By Babatunde Okunoye

In the context of Africa’s socio-economic challenges, elections are a high stakes process where heinous atrocities have been committed. The list includes mass killings, abductions, rape, arson and assassination. At the onset of the digital age, as the power of digital media became apparent by events such as the Arab Spring uprisings, the free flow of information during elections has also come under attack.

In Africa, Internet shutdowns or even limited social media blackouts have mainly occurred around elections or other political events. And we don’t need to look far behind to learn how, because in 2019 already we’ve had Internet shutdowns or social media shutdowns in Congo DRC, Chad, Sudan, Gabon and Zimbabwe – all politically motivated.

In Nigeria, we say ‘’there is no smoke without fire’’. When a few weeks ago the Nigerian Guardian, perhaps Nigeria’s most authoritative news source carried a report citing fears of an Internet shutdown in the country implemented by the government, there was clear concern among civil society activists. Hence our relief was palpable when the government later came out to deny such plans. We hope they keep to their word, unlike the authorities in Zimbabwe did after similar assurances. (See tips here to stay online in the event of internet restriction) 

As Nigeria chooses its President and other national leaders starting this Saturday, we urge the authorities to recall that elections are servants of national development. They serve as a vehicle to usher in new leaders and drivers of development for a nation. Their coming must never be heralded by the dark episode of an Internet disruption.

Internet shutdowns are human rights violations. They do not serve the purpose for which they’re implemented – usually to avoid the spread of violence or other trouble. Rather, the information blackout they occasion can be deadly in numerous humanitarian situations such as emergencies. As we all go out to vote to start on Saturday, we urge our leaders to also vote to keep the Internet on.

 

Babatunde Okunoye leads research at Paradigm Initiative. 

 

  

 

New Year, New Internet Disruptions

By | Uncategorized
By Bulanda Nkhowani
As the New Year dawned, conveying with it the promise of new things to come, an unprecedented new wave of internet shutdowns and disruptions hit Africa. On the 21st December 2018, the Sudanese government ordered for restricted access to social media sites in an effort to prevent the free flow of information and communication.This was during countrywide protests against soaring food and fuel prices, and human rights abuses that have existed for many years.

This was not the first time that Sudanese faced an internet disruption during a protest, and the impact of this particular shutdown smeared the arrival of a new year.

On 30th December 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo faced yet another government ordered internet shutdown and disruptions on mobile and fixed line services, hours before the country could head to the polls. The shutdown progressed into a full blackout that lasted several days.

Barely a week later, internet services in Gabon were suspended on 7th January 2019 during an attempted Coup.

Fast forward to 14th January, amid protests against rising fuel and food prices, Zimbabweans woke up to a throttled internet, mostly affecting social media sites, which later led to a complete blackout in the early hours of 15th January.

The unique aspect of this incident was the transparency of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to notify customers of service disruptions.

A leading ISP, Econet Wireless, confirmed the shutdown in a statement and SMS broadcasts, notifying customers of a government written warrant, under section 6 of the Interception of Communications Act, requesting ISPs to suspend all internet services.

A directive that they obliged because it was supposedly within the law and non- compliance would attract a fine or three-year jail term for local management.

Although, many factions have challenged the legality of the written warrant because the Act speaks to the interception of communication services and not to the complete blocking of internet connectivity.

Last year, Paradigm Initiative tracked at least eight countries in Africa that experienced government-ordered internet disruptions.

Thus far, January 2019 has seen three internet access restrictions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and Zimbabwe with one forgotten case of Chad, where prolonged internet disruption has been in effect since March 2018.

Consequently, the question that comes to mind is why are we experiencing so many cases of internet disruptions?

A significant aspect to consider is governments will to control public access to information and communication within a country and to the outside world.

A common trend to be noted is that most, if not all documented cases of internet blocks occurred during times of social and civil unrest.

For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the government confirmed that they were enforcing internet and SMS restrictions to prevent misinformation through the circulation of fake election results, which could lead to chaos and protests.

In other nations, social media disruptions have been used as a tool to restrict people’s ability to broadcast human rights abuses to the outside world.

Due to its transboundary nature, the internet and social media alike have empowered citizens as national watchdogs with the capacity to broadcast to a wider audience at a click of a button.

On the other hand, members of the press who largely depend on the internet experience a limited ability to gather information and contact sources, let alone broadcast their stories.

All the above mentioned examples highlight direct violations on individual’s freedom of speech and right to access information online as envisaged in the UN Resolution on the ‘promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet’ and the African Commission’s Resolution on the ‘right to freedom of expression and information on the internet in Africa’.

The blatant attacks on people’s rights to access information and express themselves freely online, particularly during fragile times, clearly demonstrates government’s fear of the role of the internet and social media on people’s ability to mobilise for change.

Aside from social and political impacts, internet and network disruptions pose significant economic losses.

A report by Brookings Institution estimates a global loss of over US$2.4 billion between June 2015 and June 2016. While CIPESA estimates losses of up to US$237 million in Africa since 2015.

If the current wave of shutdowns so early in the year is anything to go by, we can expect a lot more internet disruptions as the year progresses.

This presents an opportunity for a coordinated multi-stakeholder approach towards combating internet blackouts and strengthening existing digital rights advocacy efforts that will yield tangible policy and legislative shifts.

Paradigm Initiative Condemns Internet Shutdown in Zimbabwe

By | Uncategorized

As an organisation defending the respect of digital rights, Paradigm Initiative strongly condemns the network disruption and internet shutdown experienced in Zimbabwe which begun on Monday 14 January 2019, as a response to the planned march against rising fuel prices. On Tuesday, reports confirmed that some websites and social media platforms; WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, among others, were blocked. Reports also confirm that a total internet shutdown is in full effect and expected to last 3 days.

Internet shutdowns are a direct threat on citizen’s freedom of expression, right to information and association, they pose an even greater threat on people’s ability to communicate and access emergency services during times of distress.

In addition, internet shutdowns stifles people’s ability to conduct business and this will have adverse effects on the already ailing economy. A cost calculator developed by Netblocks, estimates that blocking Twitter and WhatsApp alone costs the country US$ 571, 262 (ZWL 184, 149, 122) per day and could result in an overall loss of US$ 17 227 262 in three days. This is rather unfortunate following the pronouncement by H.E. Emmerson Mnangagwa that ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’. The internet is an enabler of development must be leveraged for economic advancement.

According to Kuda Hove, MISA Zimbabwe Legal and ICT Policy Programmes Officer, the shutdown is affecting people’s capacity to transact and access basic needs as they depend on mobile and e-banking services. “Beyond limiting free expression and access to information, the shutdown is affecting services dependent on the internet such as e-banking and e-payment because we have a cash shortage”, He said.

Paradigm Initiative joins other civil society organisations in urging the Zimbabwean Government to respect every individual’s freedom of expression and access to information by restoring the service.

In light of other recent internet shutdowns experienced this month in the region, we further urge other African Governments to refrain from perpetuating this unfortunate trend to crackdown on citizen’s freedom of speech, especially during times of civil unrest. Governments are entrusted with safeguarding citizen’s wellbeing and as such must be committed to promoting peace, security, dialogue and citizen participation in a bid to develop our great continent.

For more information about this statement, please contact: Bulanda T. Nkhowani <bulanda.nkhowani@paradigmhq.org>

Sudan, Congo DRC and Gabon: Digital Rights violations take no holidays

By | Uncategorized

By Babatunde Okunoye and Adeboye Adegoke

The 2018 Christmas season was one of the most interesting in recent years. Several amusing events contributed to making the Christmas period one of fun and light-heartedness. One is that many in the world were made aware for the first time that every Christmas Eve, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracks the flight of Santa Claus as he delivers gifts to children around the world. The humour of a top-level military command of a superpower tracking Santa’s flight around the world only made Christmas more enjoyable. Two, the 2018 Christmas season also coincided with some mouth-watering contests in English football’s Premier League. For instance, fans of Manchester United were particularly keen to watch the club’s continued progress in the fixture against Huddersfield. The match ended 3 – 1 in favour of Manchester United.       

So while the world enjoyed the Christmas festivities, serious developments were brewing in digital rights. In Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo DRC), the government implemented Internet disruptions in contexts which both had clear political undertones. In Sudan, following rising food prices and fuel shortages, protests erupted in Khartoum and around the country, prompting the government to cut internet services. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Internet services were disrupted following the elections of December 30 2018. And on January 7, the Gabon government shutdown the Internet amid reports of a coup in the central African country. The surrounding context in the case of the shutdown in Gabon is very interesting: the Bongo family rules Gabon as a private clan. An oil-rich country, Gabon has the second highest crude oil export per capita in Africa. The father of the overthrown President, Omar Bongo had ruled the country for 42 years and his son Ali Bongo had been in power since the demise of the father in 2009 so it’s not difficult to understand why that government would typically pull the plug in the face of a threat to its reign.  

Earlier in 2018, there had been Internet disruptions in Ethiopia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, besides other digital rights violations such as the deep data breach disclosures the year exposed, such as the arrest of bloggers. As a case in point, a Nigerian blogger Daniel Elombah, who publishes elombah.com, was arrested around 4:30 a.m. at his home on New Year’s Day on January 1, 2018, on the allegation of cybercrime for publishing an article deemed a strong criticism of the Nigerian police chief on his blog. The year 2018 ranked among the most challenging years for digital rights activists, and all over the world, we seemed up to the task. From interventions such as strategic litigation, advocacy, research and communications, the impact of digital rights organizations was felt around the world. So as the holidays beckoned, any of our colleagues understandably looked forward to times of rest and relaxation with loved ones.

Thus the timing of the Sudan, Congo and Gabon incidents brought some lessons for the digital rights community to consider. If anything at all, the incidents demonstrate that we do important work with consequences for the future of people and nations. The incidents also demonstrate that despite the enormous effort the community have put in, a lot of earth still need moving to guarantee digital rights, particularly in regions and countries with little civil society footprint. Perhaps one lesson which emerged particularly from the Sudan and Congo incidents was that the challenge the size of the countries involved posed and the absence of contacts which could be immediately reached for information. As we start a new year, it is now clear that digital rights violations can happen anytime with very short notice, and with real consequences for nations. However, as civil society activists, we must also demonstrate our capacity to rise to every digital rights challenge – even when it occasionally intrudes into what is supposed to be a holiday.

 

Okunoye and Adegoke work at Paradigm Initiative as Research Officer and Digital Rights Program Manager respectively. 

Paradigm Initiative Calls on NIMC to Suspend NIN Enforcement Activities

By | Uncategorized

The digital rights advocacy group, Paradigm Initiative has called for the immediate suspension of the enforcement of National Identification Number (NIN), as announced by the National Identity Management Commission.

The NIMC announced on Tuesday the commencement of the full enforcement of the use of the NIN by Ministries, Departments and Agencies and other bodies requiring the verification of individual’s identity in the country, such as security outfits, banks and other financial institutions. The commission also announced it was empowering other government agencies and private companies to collect citizens’ data on its behalf, a situation Paradigm Initiative finds disturbing.

According to Tope Ogundipe, Paradigm Initiative’s Director of Programs, “We have always been concerned about the ability of the Commission to ensure the protection of the data in their possession, in a country that has failed to put in place a data protection law. Full enforcement of NIN at this time could lead to denial of crucial services to millions of citizens who are not comfortable with sharing their data with the commission or its agents for good reasons.”

“While the harmonization of records and data might be a good step in the right direction for better accountability and statistical documentation in Nigeria, we consider the whole process premature at this time. There has to be a strong data protection law before citizens are forced to entrust their data to NIMC or other agencies of government,” Ogundipe added.

Weighing in on the issue, Paradigm Initiative’s Executive Director, ‘Gbenga Sesan said, “Data protection is a core necessity in every society. It is a responsibility of the state and individuals alike to respect the privacy of citizens. Section 37 of the Nigerian Constitution guarantees this unequivocally. There is no way that the right to a person’s privacy can truly be respected in the digital age without data protection laws, policies and mechanisms.”

The National Identity Management Commission is saddled with the mandate to establish, own, operate, maintain and manage the National Identity Database in Nigeria. The Commission ought to take data protection very seriously; including ensuring that before the execution of such a nation-wide database harmonization exercise, there is extant and comprehensive legislation on data protection.

Paradigm Initiative urges the NIMC to cease all activities regarding the mandatory registration and use of the National Identification Number (NIN) pending when the nation enacts a data protection law. We have been following the legislative process of the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill (HB. 490) which contains comprehensive and internationally recognized provisions for data protection and we are confident that if the President assents to the Bill, the NIMC would have a sufficient data protection legislation to guide its activities.

Again, Government Shuts Down the Internet in DR Congo

By | Uncategorized


The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) have once again become victims of Internet abuse and messaging shutdown since Monday, December 31, 2018. The digital rights group, Paradigm Initiative condemned this action and called on the Congolese government to desist from infringing on the digital rights of its citizens. This is contained in a statement signed by the organisation’s Communications Officer, Sodiq Alabi.

Telecommunications services customers in the country have been informed by the Internet Services Providers in the country by the following message: “Dear Customer, at the request of the government, our Internet services are suspended for an indefinite period.” SMS communications were also interrupted afterwards.  

According to the government, communications and the Internet have been cut to stop the spread of fictitious results and safeguard national security in the aftermath of the presidential and legislative polls in the country.

For opposition candidates and civil society leaders, this new Internet shutdown by the government is unacceptable and contributes to the weakening of the electoral process. For Congolese joint opposition presidential candidate Martin Fayulu’s spokesperson, “cutting Internet proves that everything is set up to torpedo the process.” This Internet shutdown adds to other interruptions recorded in the country for almost three years.

Indeed, on February 22, 2018, the Congolese government announced in a Statement that Internet services will be cut for a period of three days throughout the country. The action was aimed at stifling a call for protest by activist groups.

On January 21, 2018, when the Catholic church leaders called for peaceful demonstrations against President Joseph Kabila’s 17-year-old rule, a new shutdown of the Internet took place with a duration of about 48 hours.

On December 30, 2017, a letter from the Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Information addressed to the General Manager of AFRICELL Congo asked him for the total suspension of Internet supplies in the country, as well as SMS communications. This three-day Internet shutdown was still aimed at stifling opposition protests.

DR Congo has more than 83 million inhabitants with an Internet penetration rate of around 15% and presents itself as a country where digital rights are seriously threatened. The financial losses associated with multiple Internet cuts are estimated at several million dollars per day.

In light of all of the above, Paradigm Initiative strongly condemns this government-orchestrated Internet shutdown that may discredit the electoral process and recalls that Internet cuts are a flagrant violation of the digital rights and freedoms of expression guaranteed by texts of law and international standards.

Paradigm Initiative calls on the DR Congo government to respect its international obligations in terms of Internet governance and human rights and to restore the Internet and all communications services as soon as possible in every part of the country.

Activists Arrested in Nigeria over Facebook Posts and Protest

By | Uncategorized

Paradigm Initiative is deeply concerned about the arrest and detention of activist Deji Adeyanju and two other Nigerians by the Nigerian Police. This is according to a statement by the digital rights and inclusion group’s Communications Officer, Sodiq Alabi.

Mr Adeyanju was reportedly arrested alongside two other activists namely Daniel Abobama and Boma Williams on Wednesday morning while leading a protest against police bias ahead of 2019 general elections.

It is our position that the tenents of democracy entitle each citizen to free speech, freedom of peaceful assembly and of demonstration. Therefore,  Mr Adeyanju is well entitled to his opinion on the bias of the police towards the incumbent president and is in fact, entitled to lead a peaceful protest in this regard.

We are aware that the Police spokesperson Jimoh Moshood has cited Mr Adeyanju’s Facebook posts and the content of the trio’s protest placards as the ground for their arrest as the Police deemed the content “criminally defamatory, and also capable of incitement and breach of public peace.” We, however, do not agree with this position. Controversial or dissenting opinions do not automatically qualify as hate speech or defamation – and free speech and demonstration are the entitlement of every citizen of a democratic state.

Paradigm Initiative, therefore, calls upon the Nigeria Police to withdraw its charge against the activists and cause release as critical speech and protest do not constitute a crime in a democratic country like Nigeria. Instead of arrest and persecution of critics, the Nigeria Police is advised to counter criticism with their own facts and argument rather than resorting to force and abuse of power.

Nigeria Urged To Prioritize Signing the Digital Rights Bill into Law  

By | Uncategorized

Abuja, Nigeria

The digital rights and inclusion group, Paradigm Initiative has expressed concerns over the delay in transmitting the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill (HB490) to President Muhammadu Buhari for his assent, urging the legislative and the executive arms to ensure the bill is signed before the 2019 elections. This is according to a statement signed by the organisation’s Communications Officer, Sodiq Alabi.

The landmark Bill was initially passed by the Senate in March 2018 after previously passed by the House of Representatives in December 2017. After an eight-month delay, the National Assembly reworked Clause 4 of the Bill after a concern was raised by the Directorate of Legal Services of the National Assembly. The new version of the Bill was passed by the Senate last Tuesday, November 27.

While speaking on the issue, Digital Rights Program Manager for Paradigm Initiative, Adeboye Adegoke spoke about the delay experienced in transmitting the Bill to the President. “Since the first passage of the Bill, we have been following up with the National Assembly on its onward transmission. We sent a freedom of information requests which were not replied and have since been left to wonder why it is taking so long to transmit the Bill to the President for his assent. Now that the Senate has reworked and re-passed the Bill, we hope that the bill will be immediately transmitted to the President.”

Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative ‘Gbenga Sesan, however, provided some succour while speaking on the issue, “We are in constant communication with key stakeholders in the National Assembly and we have been assured that the Bill will soon be forwarded to President Buhari for assent”

“Given the President’s recent spate of refusal to assent to a number of Bills sent by the National Assembly, it is understood that the National Assembly is doing extra work to ensure that the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill is not refused assent for technical reasons. A member of the Senate was recently quoted as saying that President Buhari refused his assent to 15 Bills in a single day, and we do not want to see the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill suffer such fate,” says Sesan

Speaking further on the Bill, Adeboye asserted that the Bill is poised to put Nigeria on the global map as a rights-respecting country. “This week, the Government of Germany, which currently chairs the Freedom Online Coalition, hosted the 7th Annual Freedom Online Conference, a multi-stakeholder event with governments, civil society, the private sector, and others – to share relevant information, develop joint strategies and combine efforts towards their mutual goal of a human rights-based Internet. We equally want to see Nigeria join in on these important questions and this can be done by ensuring the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill becomes law and reference legislation for other countries across the globe.”

 

For more information on this statement, please send a mail to media@paradigmhq.org.

 

Paradigm Initiative Statement on Digital Rights Violations in Burundi

By | Uncategorized

In 2015, at the time of the challenges faced during the elections in Burundi, social networks had been shut down for a period of 10 days. Users bypassed this digital censorship by VPN solutions with far-reaching consequences.

In 2018, the Senate Chairman made a statement at a public meeting that officials in the country are too tied to their smartphones. The Senate Chairman has proposed to the government to tax each WhatsApp message at 500F CFA (1USD). Following this statement, an anonymous audio circulated on the social media in the country to inform citizens that the statement of the Senate Chairman was just to motivate officials in their work. This did nothing to reassure citizens.

On October 12, 2018, during the Open day organized by the Communications Regulatory Agency, the General Manager announced that major projects are being prepared for the ARCT: “the establishment of the new law on electronic communications, the implementation of the project of the establishment of the single network, the implementation of the broadband strategy in Burundi, the waste management of electronic and electrical equipment, the establishment of a CIRT (Cyber Incident Response Team). “

In view of this, and according to the Civil Society leaders in the country, a bill could be also prepared to tax social media in a context where no actor could oppose.

In this context, Paradigm Initiative calls the Burundian government to carry out reforms in strict compliance with its political commitments while respecting human rights online. Paradigm Initiative also invites the authorities of the country to abandon all projects of taxation on social media and avoid violation of digital rights and freedoms of Burundian citizens.

African governments using laws to stifle internet freedom – Report

By | Uncategorized

Many African governments have rolled out legislation and policies which enforce privacy violations, infringements to freedom of expression, access restrictions and hurt other digital rights, the Digital Rights in Africa 2018 report has revealed. The report prepared by Paradigm Initiative was launched at the Internet Governance Forum in Paris on Tuesday, November 13. 

Download the report (in English or French)

The report titled “Legislating Restriction: How African Governments Use Restrictive Laws,” is the third edition of the Digital Rights in Africa report.

According to  ‘Gbenga Sesan, the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, “The 2016 and 2017 editions focused on Internet Shutdowns and Citizens fightback against digital rights abuses. The 2018 edition focuses on how governments across Africa have transitioned from solely brutal tactics of arrests, Internet and social media app disruptions, and imprisonment to more refined, subtle and apparently “legal’’ approaches – or those that supposedly respect the “rule of law’’ – in stifling digital rights in Africa.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Morocco, Tanzania and beyond, governments have begun to roll out legislation and policies which enforce privacy violations, infringements to freedom of expression, access restrictions and hurt other digital rights.

According to Tope Ogundipe, the Director of Programs of Paradigm Initiative, “Our 2018 Digital Rights in Africa Report takes a look at this trend across Africa and discusses the way forward for civil society as we continue in the fight for digital rights and freedoms on the continent”.

Download the report (in English or French)

This report highlights 8 countries across North, East, West and Central Africa where critical developments in the legal or policy space have conspired to hurt digital rights. These countries are Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, and Benin. Others are Uganda, Tanzania, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 48-page report is published in English and French and is available for free download on the Paradigm Initiative’s website.

The report also bemoans the role certain actions of China, Russia and the United States have impacted on rights in other rights in African countries.

According to the report, “The surprise withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council is another stark symptom of the strange times we are in… Beyond the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United States has lost some of its moral authority as an arbiter and defender of global human rights as a result of happenings within its own borders. These developments have emboldened hitherto repressive, but hesitant, state actors into acts that brazenly attempt to restrict human rights online and offline.”

“The increasing influence of China and Russia in global affairs is definitely changing perceptions about the thresholds of what is acceptable or not in human rights standards. Even more so, it would seem many African countries have begun to borrow a leaf from repressive foreign governments’ playbooks for violating digital rights,” the report continued.

Download the report (in English or French)

The report also laments the slow passage of laws with the potential to uphold digital rights, noting that, “Interestingly, as states across the continent rush towards the passage of legislation which violate digital rights, simultaneously, they have either refused to implement calls for the enactment of legislation which protect digital rights or have introduced delays in the passage of such laws and policies. For instance, there are only 23 countries with data protection legislation in effect on the continent, whereas data protection has become a crucial foundation for life in our digital age and the successful working of the digital economy.”

 

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