Monitoring Digital Rights as Sierra Leone and Egypt go to the Polls

By Babatunde Okunoye

Africa’s many development challenges around the economy, health, security, environment, employment and housing amongst others have for many decades captured the world’s attention. The fragile socio-economic fabric of the continent has resulted in Africa being a major recipient of foreign aid and development grants over the years.

Therefore when it’s election time in Africa, many interests collide as they strive to shape the future of the continent, at least for the time permitted by the term limit of the offices being sought. In Presidential elections, in particular, the stakes are highest because of the tremendous power African Heads of States tend to have to shape the destinies of their countries.

However, it is clear that in recent years, election time in Africa has also become the platform for some of the worst human rights abuses as incumbents strive to hold on to power by all means. Digital rights in Africa have suffered as elections in Africa between 2016 and 2017 have being the setting for Internet shutdowns, blocking of apps such as whatsapp and twitter which citizens use in political mobilizing. Governments across Africa have typically used excuses such restricting fake news and hate speech as a pretext in carrying out information controls around elections, but their real intentions are always plain – suppressing their populations to achieve political advantage.

In March 7 and March 26 – March 28 respectively, the West African nations of Sierra Leone and Egypt in North Africa will conduct Presidential elections in contexts where the incumbents seem inordinately disposed to retain power for self and political party – and as such just the right environment for the blocking/throttling of social media, Internet disruptions, illegal surveillance, clampdown on citizens and journalists as we have witnessed across Africa in recent years. Egypt, in particular, gives the most cause for concern. In addition to implementing one of the most extensive surveillance networks against journalists on the continent, Internet disruptions in the Sinai, authorities in Egypt are currently building a climate of fear where digital rights including freedom of expression and press freedoms cannot thrive.

As these important elections are held in the coming few weeks, Paradigm Initiative will work with partners in the region to monitor the situations in these countries. Alongside the global digital rights community, we are of the firm opinion that access to the Internet should never be disrupted intentionally and those successful elections can be held in Africa without information controls. Elections in Nigeria in 2015 and Ghana in 2016 teach that the Internet can actually become a tool for the successful conduct of elections and the political process in general. This is a lesson we hope can be replicated across Africa.

 

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