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How African Governments and Citizens Spar Over Digital Civic Spaces

By Guest Writer on September 30, 2021

civic spaces digital rights

Civic space remains open in only two of Africa’s 54 countries. The reduction in safe public spaces in which democratic debate can take place represents a breach of citizens’ digital rights and makes achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) impossible.

Digital Rights in Closing Civic Space: Lessons from Ten African Countries presents the literature review used by the African Digital Rights Network to provide the conceptual framing for the commissioning of digital rights landscape country reports on ten African countries. It also presents preliminary findings and makes tentative recommendations designed to enhance the ability of citizens to exercise, defend, and expand their digital rights.

Online Civic Spaces for Democratic Debate

Civic space refers to the public places where citizens can freely exercise their human rights. This includes the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Civic spaces can be offline physical locations, such as village halls or public squares, or online virtual spaces for digital discussion, online petitions, or hashtag campaigns.

Online civic space can provide a refuge for marginalised or opposition groups, particularly in offline contexts where such voices are disciplined or oppressed. Civic space is crucial for any open and democratic country in which citizens and civil society are free to hold power- holders accountable, draw attention to neglected issues, and foster inclusive decision-making at all levels.

Digital rights are human rights in online spaces. These rights include, but are not limited to:

  • the right to privacy,
  • freedom of opinion and speech,
  • freedom of information and communication,
  • gender rights, and
  • the right to freedom from violence.

Citizens’ digital rights are breached:

  • if they are the subject of digital surveillance;
  • if they are covertly targeted with disinformation to manipulate their beliefs and behaviour;
  • if their mobile or internet connection is restricted; or
  • if they are arrested or attacked for expressing political opinion online.

Examples of digital rights breaches include online gender-based violence perpetrated by misogynist groups; mass interception of digital communications by state spy agencies; or private sector actors trading citizens’ digital profiles to enable covert voter disinformation campaigns.

digital rights africa

9 Insights on African Digital Civic Spaces

As governments close offline civic space, citizens open online civic spaces

Mechanisms used to close offline civic space have included laws, regulations, limits on funding, threats and violence, arbitrary arrest, and detention. Although research on closing offline civic space is beginning to receive the attention that it deserves, there has been much less research attention on the openings and closings of online civic space in Africa.

When citizens open online civic space, governments close it down.

For example, since citizens used SMS (short message service) text messages to organise politically in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, governments in 50 African countries imposed compulsory SIM card registration.

Then, when citizens used social media to voice opposition, some governments blocked it or introduced price rises to make accessing it unaffordable. Zeynep Tufekci’s book Twitter and Tear Gas, is a comprehensive account of how citizen use of digital tools in Egypt was met with concerted state repression to close democratic space.

Tech-savvy activists initially gained an advantage over established political actors by using mobile and internet campaigning to create online civic spaces. However, governments are now rapidly building their own capabilities to dominate these online spaces using digital surveillance, disinformation and intentional internet disruptions including shutdowns, bandwidth throttling (slowing down), bans and blocking.

Use of online civic space has its own limitations and risks.

The ability to access and make productive use of digital technologies is uneven across gender, income, and ethnic groups, such that its patterns of use reflect, reproduce, and amplify existing intersectional inequalities. Women activists and politicians often face sustained abuse and violence if they are vocal online, creating a chilling effect.

The use of mobile devices and online spaces involves leaving digital traces that enable systematic surveillance. This digital surveillance is used:

  • to target covert voter disinformation and manipulation;
  • to disrupt internet access to information and communications; and
  • to mark individuals for arrest, torture or even murder.

States and corporations use technology for ‘digital authoritarianism’.

The Egyptian and Zimbabwean governments are among those who are known to have imported artificial intelligence-based surveillance technologies from the US and China to spy on their own citizens’ mobile and internet communications.

Governments are buying new mobile phone interception and internet shutdown and disruption technologies. Politicians are using digital technologies to inflame ethnic division and drown out democratic dialogue and debate. This closes civic space and diminishes citizens’ rights to freedom of opinion and expression.

Tactics threaten election integrity in over 50 African countries.

They could also influence the outcomes of critical policy debates, including those on vaccines, climate change, gender, and sexual rights – all of which are known targets for digital disinformation and covert influence by powerful foreign and domestic lobbying interests.

In the 2017 elections in Kenya, political elites reportedly spent US$20m on fake news and covert disinformation campaigns designed to manipulate citizens’ beliefs and voting behaviour. In 2020, the number of intentional internet shutdowns by African governments rose from 21 to 25.

They were often scheduled at the time of elections or popular protests. Shutting down the internet reduces the rights to access information and to communicate freely, and the economic right of online traders to conduct business.

Research on digital tools to close civic space is limited.

Currently, we know more about digital openings of civic space than we do about digital closings of civic space. We also know far more about the global North than we do about the distinctive features in the global South. The research evidence about African countries that does exist is typically about a single event, or single technology, in a single country.

Technical studies are often divorced from consideration of explanatory political and civic contexts. There is currently little comparative analysis on openings and closings of civic space across Africa. Without more detailed empirical evidence about the dimensions and distinctive dynamics of the problem on the African continent, it is impossible for local actors to design effective remedies and countermeasures to restore civic space and secure digital rights.

Ten country reports were commissioned to address knowledge gaps

The reports are from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Sudan, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Cameroon. They are intended to provide an initial scoping of the digital rights landscape within each nation and across the African continent.

Each report begins with three sections that review key developments between 2000 and 2020 in the country’s political history, civic space dynamics and key technological changes.

To aid cross-country comparison, each report contains two summary tables illustrating the timeline of key developments in the opening and closing of civic space, and the use of digital technologies by citizens and governments. The reports present preliminary findings and make tentative recommendations about how to open civic space and enhance citizens’ ability to exercise, defend and expand their digital rights.

Research includes 180 examples of digital technologies for opening or closing civic space.

The reports illustrate how wider political dynamics, and increasing availability of mobile and internet technologies, have shaped both openings and closings of civic space. In many of the country reports, the opening of civic space that characterised the years preceding the millennium has been replaced by closing civic space a decade later.

The reports provide almost twice as many examples of digital technologies being used to close civic space as to open it. The current wave of surveillance and disinformation technologies has potentially serious implications for the possibility of inclusive dialogue and sustainable development.

This turn to digital authoritarianism became especially pronounced in the wake of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, when citizen uprisings unsettled entrenched political elites, who then scrambled to build their own arsenal of digital tactics and techniques to control online discourse.

Supporting digital rights requires cognisance of the wider contexts.

Taken together, the reports identify the need for an applied research programme that addresses existing gaps in evidence, awareness, legislation, and capacity. We argue that a multi-sector network is necessary to enhance the domestic capacity in each African country to overcome closing civic space and breaches of digital rights.

To this end, we recommend engaging with four key constituencies:

  • Researchers – to produce new evidence about surveillance actors, tools, tactics and techniques.
  • Journalists – to raise public awareness about the practices and consequences of surveillance.
  • Policymakers – to map existing legislation, identify gaps and advance a public policy agenda.
  • Activists – to expand civic engagement to tackle surveillance, disinformation and shutdowns.

A lightly edited synopsis of Digital Rights in Closing Civic Space: Lessons from Ten African Countries by Tony Roberts for the Institute of Development Studies.

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2 Comments to “How African Governments and Citizens Spar Over Digital Civic Spaces”

  1. Tony Roberts says:

    The link at the end of this story points to a different article

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