Shaping Digital Rights Advocacy in Africa through Policy Intervention

By Babatunde Okunoye & Adeboye Adegoke

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217A), is the foundation for international human rights law. Its drafting shortly after the horrors of World War 2 by representatives from different legal and cultural backgrounds across the world sought to codify for future generations what rights humans all over the world should enjoy. Informed by the atrocities of Nazi Germany which only came to light in the final moments of the war, the UDHR was drafted as a part of a process that ensured that never it repeated itself.

In relation to digital rights advocacy, Article 19 of the UDHR has been fundamental. It states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. And although we are many decades away from the destruction of the Second World War, in the 21st century we are currently enmeshed in another type of war – the war on Cyberspace. In this Cyberwar, state actors, the private sector, civil society and individuals are caught up in episodes of local and cross-country cyberattacks, cyberespionage, illegal surveillance, arrests of bloggers, journalists and ordinary citizens. This is particularly true for Africa where state actors have sought to extend the control they had over traditional media to new media channels in a bid to choke the emergence of dissenting voices.

In light of the new reality that the battle for the defence of human rights has moved to cyberspace, on the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, Paradigm Initiative will work to ensure that the digital rights of people across Africa are protected. From our offices in Lagos, Abuja, Yaoundé and Blantyre, we will host workshops across the continent where local actors are trained on digital rights; we will convene the most important voices on digital rights in Africa at our Internet Freedom Forum and we will challenge the now perennial actions of governments which impinge on digital rights, amongst several activities.

Our work in 2017 has been rewarding. As the year wound to an end, news emerged that the digital rights and freedom bill we have worked on in coalition with partners across civil society, government and the private sector had passed 3rd reading at Nigeria’s House of Representatives and now only requires concurrence at the Senate and Presidential assent to become law. The effect of this positive bill of legislation, if passed into law, will be major for digital rights in Nigeria. This is the type of impact we hope to have in 2018, as we work to defend digital rights across Africa.

The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill is a positive rights legislation which replicates and builds on the objective that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was intended to serve. More importantly, it provides direct safeguards to new realities brought about by the contested cyberspace of the 21st century. The need for African countries to replicate this process is urgent because several African countries have an abundance of laws or legislation which seeks to repress freedom. The various forms of digital rights violations experienced across several jurisdictions in Africa over the years have been made possible because of existing repressive laws. While we will continue to work with partners across the continent to engage policymakers to push for repeals of some of these existing laws, we will also work with local stakeholders to introduce positive rights legislation across the continent. Although this might be perceived as an attempt to correct the ills of the past, it must also be viewed as a proactive approach to prevent violations in countries with fewer records of Digital Rights violations.

The United Nations took an important step in June 2016 in recognizing Internet Rights as Human Rights in United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on the “promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet” which condemned countries which intentionally disrupt the internet access of its citizens. The resolution stresses that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online” particularly with regards to the freedom of expression already protected by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It is now expected of Digital Rights organizations, Human rights Organizations and Civil Society across the continent to work and engage the local processes in each country to ensure this is reflected in National Laws. Paradigm Initiative is committed to this objective and we hope to train and partner with organizations in various African countries, offering our expertise, resources and time to make this possible, so that going forward, Africa will become a bastion and model for digital rights in the 21st century.

 

*Babatunde Okunoye is Research Assitant at Paradigm Initiative

**Adeboye Adegoke is the Program Manager (Anglophone West Africa) at Paradigm Initiative.

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