By APCNews Johannesburg, 25 September 2013
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) held a regional dialogue and workshop on “Freedom of expression in cyberspace” from 20-21 September 2013 in Johannesburg. It is part of MISA’s two-year project aimed at raising awareness on issues of digital security focusing primarily on right to privacy and surveillance of citizen and mainstream journalists in the region.
The event explored how to empower human rights defenders in southern Africa using the internet to promote democracy and good governance and, in light of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and state paranoia around new ICTs, how the privacy of human rights defenders can be safeguarded against increasing restrictions and circumvent surveillance.
A dialogue of this kind is a step forward. There is not much discussion about internet-related human rights in the region at the moment since Africans are largely concerned with internet access. Moreover, human rights groups tend to work on very specific rights issues such as LGBT, migrant, or socioeconomic rights. “People need to be willing to take time to consider how the internet can factor into all rights-related work,” says APC’s African Policy Project Coordinator Emilar Vushe.
Participants were eager to engage in discussion and to learn more about internet governance. Vushe stimulated discussion on how Africans can be involved in the governance of the internet. “I live and work on the internet,” she said, “and I’d like to have a say on how it’s governed. You are all stakeholders and you need to take part in this discussion.”
There was a general agreement that the same human rights offline should apply online. “We are human beings whether we are online or offline,” said one participant, pointing out at what has been the motto behind APC’s Internet Rights are Human Rights initiative.
Though always not referred to as such, a lot of discussion highlighted issues of internet intermediary liability. There have been increasing requests to internet intermediaries such as Facebook and Google from governments throughout Africa to hand over information about their users. In Ethiopia, the government is in fact the only Internet Service Provider (ISP). In Eritrea, police actually patrol cybercafes by physically walking around monitoring what people do while browsing the web. APC is currently conducting research and raising awareness in Nigeria with Paradigm Initiative on the role of internet intermediaries.
“How do you regulate without overriding the right to freedom of expression,” said Dr Sarah Chiumbu in the keynote speech. “Surveillance and civil liberties have a serious, chilling effect on online expression.”
Follow the discussion on Twitter: #MISAFoE