Making Internet rights visible at the African Commission on Human Rights

When the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) was first established back in 1986, the Internet was still a little known project of academics and engineers. Just thirty years on, the changes it has brought have been felt across the world. Its implications for human rights are at the heart of the work that many civil society groups like those involved in the African Declaration do to ensure that the internet functions as an enabler of human rights. Yet, at the ACHPR, the issue of Internet rights is still almost completely absent from the agenda. It was for this reason that members of the African Declaration went to the latest gathering of the NGO Forum, which is an official meeting held prior to the Ordinary Session of the ACHPR. The aims of this engagement with this important African Human Rights mechanism were twofold - to engage more civil society from across the continent on internet rights and to get the Commission to recognise the Internet as an enabler of human rights, including through starting the process of getting a Resolution passed to that end.

At the NGO Forum, the Secretariat of the ‘African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms’ in cooperation with the ‘African Platform on Access to Information (APAI) Working Group’ organised a side-session to the regional NGO Forum. At this side session, over 30 participants gathered from across the African continent to discuss freedom of expression and the Internet in Africa. Drawing from their diverse backgrounds as human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers, the participants discussed the impact the Internet has on the media, political participation, gender equality and more. The side event came at a crucial time as the growth of the Internet and access is on rise in the continent, so Internet rights on the continent should be understood and known by all that use the Internet. Many African countries are emerging as hubs of opportunities and prosperity for economic developments and fundamental human rights if correct legislation and leadership are in place. However, without proper safeguards and legislative frameworks in place, this promise of opportunities can be easily tarnished with repressive and undemocratic governments. The use of Internet in Africa at the moment is very diverse, ranging from people starting their own start-ups, to its use for research purposes, for human rights advocacy and for citizens to exercise their civil and political rights. On the other hand, governments in Africa are sometimes viewed as being against the use of the Internet, through how they invoke moral panic or claim it will undermine social cohesion. There are too many examples of governments on the continent who use the Internet to violate privacy and undertake surveillance in order to spy on journalists and citizens and to censor online information. This has resulted in freedom of expression, association and other human rights being restricted or denied online. All participants highlighted challenges of censorship, lack of journalistic freedom and low rates of Internet penetration in some African countries.

Here’s a summary of some of the topics that the group discussed:

  • While access is still limited, its use is still important enough for it to be a tool for freedom of expression. It empowers minorities and groups at risk to have a voice in public debates, and strengthens dissident voices, including journalists, bloggers and activists
  • With growing civil engagement online, there is a worrying trend of even more draconian measures and more Internet shutdowns emerged across the region. Because it strengths free speech online, some governments have reacted with shut downs and blocking
  • The risks to freedom of expression on the Internet are often hidden in complex legislation expressly related to the protection of children online or national security. Untangling these legitimate aims from illegitimate restrictions on freedom of expression online is a challenging process that requires close monitoring and expertise from civil society. Only through strong networks across the regions can civil society learn from each other's experiences and counter these threats with a positive agenda for human rights online.
  • In many cases, restrictive government measures do not comply with international regulations, such as the UN Human Rights Council Resolution A/HRC/20/L.13. To counter this, civil society should provide guidance to adhere to international standards and push for a rights respecting framework for Internet policy.

Together, all participants, the Secretariat of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms and the Working Group of the African Platform on Access to Information drew on the discussion and drafted a statement to present at the NGO Forum and to directly address the 58th Ordinary session of the ACHPR. The statement sought to clearly define the purpose of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms and how it endeavours to address the existing challenges that are apparent in region on issues of the Internet and freedom online. The statement reads as follows:   OUR STATEMENT The Secretariat of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms in Cooperation with the Working Group of the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI) also held a parallel side event on "Freedom of Expression and The Internet in Africa", with a special focus on the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms. Participants in this event included human rights defenders, Media practitioners and ICT capacity development service providers. The African Declaration initiative is motivated by the growing numbers of National level legislation that seek to regulate and, in some cases, control the Free and open Internet. It is now critical that we strengthen the protection of Freedom of expression online and spur the development of rights-based Internet Policies in the region. Participants discussed the Internet as a tool for promoting and enabling human Rights in Africa. It was agreed that the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms is an entry point for engaging policy makers and other stakeholders at National and regional levels as part of the process of promoting human rights Standards and principles of openness in internet policy formulation and Implementation on the African continent. Participants noted that the lack of adequate legal and technical capacity among Many states to properly regulate the online environment in accordance with Established human rights norms and principles is resulting in widespread Violation of human rights online. The participants therefore call on the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights to adopt a resolution endorsing the African Declaration as a set of Guidelines for ensuring that internet-related law and policy making at national And regional levels in Africa comply with human rights standards.

Banjul, 4 April 2016

To stay in touch with upcoming activities, to share your stories on freedom online, follow the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms twitter account at @AfricaNetRights and hashtag your tweets with #AfricanInternetRights.