Man holding a mobile phone. Digital Rights Under Threat in Africa: Activists Fight for Free Speech

Why Digital Rights in Africa Is A Fight for Freedom

Digital rights are under threat in Africa due to a combination of historical, social, economic, and political factors. 

Activists are fighting for reforms to ensure free speech and access to information online. This was a clarion call at a panel discussion on “Regional Perspectives: Contextualizing Issues and Proposing Solutions“, with Dr Grace Githaiga, CEO KICTANet, Richard Mulonga, CEO Bloggers of Zambia, and Kathleen Ndongmo, Content Manager Viamo.

This was at the “Countering digital threats to democracy: forging a path to responsible digital development” a convening of USAID staff and partners in Sub-saharan Africa. Sessions included local expert perspectives on digital threats to democracy in sub-Saharan Africa as well as innovative solutions being used across the continent. 

The panel focused on the challenges and opportunities surrounding digital rights in Africa.

According to Dr Grace, historical and socio-economic factors have shaped the digital landscape and democratic processes in Africa. “So the threat to freedom of expression to freedom of media continues to continue to affect people,” she emphasised.

She also noted a surge in online censorship and government surveillance. 

“There’s a lot of surveillance going on. We keep saying it is okay to be surveilled. But, when you start being profiled, and being identified as a subject of interest, especially to the state, then it becomes dangerous,” she noted.

Similarly, disinformation and misinformation were also cited as a threat to undermining democracy and public trust. 

In addition, most African states have repressive legislations that restrict free speech online are prevalent. 

Khadijah El-Usman, Paradigm Initiative Senior Programs Officer, Anglophone West Africa disclosed that across Africa there is that aspect of “Larger than life culture” where respect for elders can create a power imbalance and hinder free speech.

She also cited limited access to policymakers where activists and citizens struggle to be heard by those in power, “So there is a big divide when it comes to the people and those upstairs (power).” 

Cybersecurity and cybercrime acts are used to target journalists and activists. “So the repression is real, and civil society needs to mobilize itself. We need to network,” the panel gave emphasis.

On elections in Africa, Dr Grace said it was an issue of trust. Citizens lack faith in the very institutions tasked with overseeing a fair process. “This lack of trust is compounded by the influence of money in politics. Politicians with deeper pockets may have an unfair advantage, raising concerns about who truly wins elections.”

She also said technology was supposed to be a game-changer, but its uneven rollout creates new problems. Not all regions have access to these tools, breeding suspicion in areas left behind.  Even where technology is deployed, infrastructure shortcomings like electricity and internet connectivity create obstacles.

“The conversation around improving elections needs to be broader.  Currently, voters, observers, and civil society organizations are often left on the sidelines. Public participation is touted, but the reality is complex documents with tight deadlines for feedback,” she adds.

Sadly, even when feedback is provided, it may not be reflected in the final process, leaving stakeholders feeling unheard and frustrated.

“Ultimately, a truly trustworthy electoral system in Africa needs to involve all stakeholders in a meaningful way, ensuring everyone has a voice and a stake in the outcome.”

According to the event organisers, USAID’s Digital Strategy recognizes that while digital tools hold immense potential to help people live more free and prosperous lives, they also present significant risks to citizen privacy and data, freedom of the press, and individual expression.




David Indeje information

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