The internet and more so blogging has enabled a growth in freedom of speech amongst civil society groups and individual activists and citizens across the continent. In China, Iran and the Middle East the governments have been active in monitoring and restricting access to the internet by it’s citizens. The first African country to ban websites was Tunisia which hosted the second phase of the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) was held in Tunisia last November. The irony was no...read more
The internet and more so blogging has enabled a growth in freedom of speech amongst civil society groups and individual activists and citizens across the continent. In China, Iran and the Middle East the governments have been active in monitoring and restricting access to the internet by it’s citizens. The first African country to ban websites was Tunisia which hosted the second phase of the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) was held in Tunisia last November. The irony was not lost on many of the participants who held their own workshops and seminars promoting freedom of expression despite threats from government employed thugs. Earlier on March 1st Tunisian journalist Muhammad Abou was arrested and subsequently imprisoned for publishing an article on a banned website where he compared the President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The first reports that the Ethiopian government was blocking blogs hosted by blogger.com came on the 18th May as Ethiopian blogger, Ethiopian Life reported that his blog had been blocked along with a number of others. Later Meskel Square asked “Where have all the Ethiopian Blogspot Bloggers gone?. In addition, Free Our Leaders and Ethiopian Review were also unavailable. In total 75% of Ethiopian blogs tracked on Global Voices are no longer accessible from Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian blogosphere has been one of the most vibrant on the continent and highly critical of the government of Meles Zenawi. Though the government is still denying any involvement in the shut down there is really no other explanation. Ethiopian bloggers in the Diaspora continue to relentlessly attack the tyranny of Zenawi’s government and question the US and other Western countries who continue to support his government. Ethiopia is not the only country trying to prevent African citizens an online presence. RSF reports that the Gambian government has hacked into the website of exiled Gambian journalist, Pa Nderry Mbai, who runs the Freedom Newspaper and posted “a false statement of allegiance to an associate of the president together with the names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of all its subscribers, describing them as “informers”(http://www.freedomnewspaper.com/).
The false statement was made worse by the exposure of people’s names and email addresses who had set up user accounts on the site. Mbai’s email and phone number in the US were also published. Those living in Gambia are now at personal risk of arrest and detention by the Gambian government.
The same day, the Gambian police ordered all those “who continually supplied him with information which he used to castigate and vilify the democratically elected government of His Excellency President Alhaji Yahya Jammeh” to report to the nearest police station within 24 hours or face immediate arrest.
The hacking was done from an IP address in Southampton, England.
The implications for activists and dissidents in Africa are obvious. How safe is your personal information? How safe are you? This is especially worrying for those blogging from Ethiopia, Tunisia and Egypt - governments which have arrested and detained bloggers and journalists in recent months. Egypt has been particularly viscious…. in it’s response to bloggers. On May 7th activist and blogger, Alaa Ahmed along with 11 others, was detained in prison by the Egyptian police. They had all been arrested for supporting another group of protestors. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the thousands of police were deployed against protestors proving once again that President Mubarak “is committed to zero tolerance when it comes to peaceful dissent”. Despite the arrests, Egyptian bloggers launched a collaborative campaign against the governments repression and to free the arrested activists and bloggers. Alaa Ahmed was not the first Egyptian blogger to be arrested. Last October, 21 year old activist, journalist and blogger, Abdel Karim Seliman was also arrested and detained for 18 days. His writings were confiscated by the Egyptian state security.
In Zimbabwe where freedom of speech died many years ago, the government is planning to enact legislation that will allow it to monitor the phone calls and mail of anyone suspected of threatening national security or involvement in criminal activities in the country. The Interception of Communications Bill will include the monitoring of email and there is no doubt in my mind that the government will seek ways to block internet usage and particularly blogs from operating within the country. In truth the Bill is simply another tool for the government to continue its repression of the people of Zimbabwe and places Zimbabwean bloggers at an increased risk to their personal safety.
Two African countries that have had relatively free press and freedom of speech, South African and Kenya, are now hinting at curbing free expression. In the case of South Africa the government is proposing legislation that will monitor require mobile phone providers to monitor and intercept phone calls.
The proposed law requires operators Vodacom, MTN and CellC to put in place systems for the interception of cellphone communications, and to keep detailed information of all their clients, as well as phones and SIM cards .
The providers such as Vodocom (http://www.citizen.co.za/index/article.aspx?pDesc=17511,1,22) are angry at the legislation which will increase their administration costs on a scheme they say is unworkable. They will face huge fines for not complying with the proposed legislation - the “Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communications Related Information Bill” (http://www.legalbrief.co.za/filemgmt_data/files/RIC%20Bill.pdf) and of course they will loose millions in revenue as their customer base is reduced by as much as 20 million people (http://www.businessday.co.za/articles/article.aspx?ID=BD4A206373).
However from a user perspective the Bill has implications for both privacy and access or use of mobile phones. As always it is the poor that will mostly be affected by this legislation. If you dont have an address, do not work in the formal economy or are an illegal immigrant then under the Bills regulations you will no longer be able to use a mobile phone. The second hand sale of SIM cards which again is used by mostly poor and rural people will be criminalised as failure to report the sale or exchange will result in a prison sentence of up to 12 months.
The governments cites the high crime rate as the main reason behind the legislation. There is no doubt about the high level of crime in South Africa and that mobile phones are used in carrying out many crimes. However it will be the poor, the migrants, the low paid or those employed in the informal sector who will suffer most and become even more disenfranchised from society and not the criminals who as one report states (http://www.citizen.co.za/index/article.aspx?pDesc=17511,1,22) can afford to buy SIM cards from a neighbouring country, use them and dispose of them with ease.
Last month the Kenyan Internal Security Minister, John Njoroge Michuki place an advert in the Daily Standard where as Kenyan blogger, Thinkers Room wrote “not so subtly dishes out warnings to radio talk shows, newspapers and Internet bloggers……. Bottom line – bloggers are now on the government radar”. He continues….”I won’t be cowed online but I jolly well will keep a very low profile physically.”
Africa’s dictators and paranoid leaders are beginning to discover cyberland where, unlike traditional media (newspapers, radio and TV), freedom of expression is much more difficult to control. Nigeria, has a huge online presence not only from bloggers but from news portals, forums and discussion groups – most of them highly critical of the present government. Two weeks ago, a Nigerian photographer, Jide Adeniyi-Jones, was refused publication of an article by various Nigerian newspapers so he simply sent the article to various bloggers who published it on his behalf. Many dissidents and activists from the Niger Delta and Igboland who are calling for secession already use the internet to publish their writings which would be banned in Nigeria. How long before they find themselves on the governments radar.
* Sokari Ekine is Blogging Africa editor for Pambazuka News