Honourable Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Commission), Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information and Commissioners of the African Commission.
Paradigm Initiative (PIN) welcomes the African Commission Resolution 522 on the Protection of Women Against Digital Violence in Africa which, among other things, calls for States to review or adopt legislation that aims at combating all forms of digital violence, and expanding the definition of gender-based violence to include digital violence against women including cyber-harassment, cyberstalking, sexist hate speech amongst other ICT-related violations. This is particularly welcome in an environment where women continue to bear the brunt of online gender-based violence in Africa.
The rise of criminalisation of freedom of expression online or through digital technologies is particularly concerning. Uganda recently enacted the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill 2022 into law which makes a number of amendments to the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 in section 6, introducing section 26A criminalising sharing of misleading or malicious information through a computer. Principle 22(2) of the African Commission’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information (the Declaration) calls on States to repeal laws that criminalise sedition, insult and publication of false news. This Amendment comes against a backdrop of the already problematic Computer Misuse Act, 2011 which has vague and ambiguous provisions under section 24(2) defining cyber harassment as including the use of a computer for making any request, suggestion or proposal which is obscene, lewd, lascivious or indecent. With the ambiguity of terms such as obscenity and lasciviousness, this has been used in the past to crack down on expression that merely offends without necessarily being classified as prohibited speech as highlighted in Principle 23 of the Declaration. Human rights defenders, the media and those living in Uganda are subjected to this law which shrinks online freedoms of expression.
The government of Mauritania, under the current review by the African Commission, adopted a law on the protection of national symbols and criminalisation of offenses against the authority of the state and the honour of the citizen on November 9, 2021. This law in Article 2 has a penalty of two to four years imprisonment for anyone who undermines the authority of the state and its symbols through the deliberate use of information technology, digital communication and social communication platforms to undermine the constant values and sacred principles of Islam, national unity, territorial integrity, or to insult the person of the President of the Republic, the flag
and the national anthem. This law violates freedom of expression both offline and online against international human rights standards.
In addition, we are particularly concerned by the trend of Internet shutdowns which mainly occur during elections and protests, interfering with freedom of expression, access to information, freedom of association and peaceful assembly. 4th November 2022 will mark two years of sustained Internet shutdowns in Ethiopia, Tigray region, an untenable situation in the face of ending the conflict impasse and gross human rights violations. This state of affairs has affected over 5 million people in the Tigray region.
Furthermore, Zimbabwe and Nigeria have upcoming elections in 2023 and have a history of disrupting the Internet or access to online platforms. Landmark violations in Zimbabwe and Nigeria include the Internet shutdown in 2019 following fuel price hike protests and the Twitter ban in Nigeria, which lasted about 7 months in 2021, respectively.
Pursuant to the preceding, we urge the African Commission and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information to call on the African States to fully uphold Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights by, among others desisting from criminalising freedom of expression and to adhere to Resolution 522, calling for an end to digital violence against women and creating enabling practices that ensure women’s safety online.
We urge the African Commission to call on the following;
● The government of Uganda to repeal section 6 of the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act of 2022 and section 24(2) of the Computer Misuse Act, of 2011.
● The government of Mauritania to repeal article 2 of the law on the protection of national symbols and criminalisation of offenses against the authority of the state and honour of the citizen.
● The government of Ethiopia to ensure open and secure Internet access, ending all forms of Internet disruptions, and
● The governments of Zimbabwe and Nigeria to keep the Internet open during their upcoming elections in 2023.
For any further comments, PIN is reachable via an email submitted to Thobekile Matimbe, Paradigm Initiative’s Partnerships and Engagements Manager at email@example.com.