Which way African ICT Policy? Turn right, human right

“He is as useless as a dog” this was part of a Facebook post by a young Kenyan photographer on the wall of a Kenyan politician, Mr. Lewis Nguyai. The Facebook post has since led to the photographer’s arrest and may ultimately result in a defamation suit. Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) which was set up after the post election violence in 2008 to “promote equality of opportunity, good relations, harmony and peaceful coexistence between persons of different ethnic and racial backgrounds in Kenya” claims that they received 60 complaints in February 2012 regarding defamatory comments made about individuals on social media web sites. In most countries defamation is entrenched in local laws and mostly predicated on Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees legal protection against “attacks upon … honour and reputation”.

While the Internet for many simply serves as another medium for communication it has become increasingly evident that it has also provided a means by which individual human rights can either be upheld and exercised or conversely, violated in one way or another. The privacy and freedom of expression debates which have been triggered by Governments’ efforts to gather intelligence through surveillance of people’s activities on the Internet as well as efforts by some Governments or powerful entities to censor content or completely block access to the Internet have led to an increased focus on the relationship between human rights and the Internet. Does the Internet change the rights and freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration? Does it change the meaning of rights to stakeholders in ways that were not envisaged when the Declaration was agreed? These and many other questions have become a centerpiece in public policy debate especially in the context of the International rights regime.

Decisions made surrounding these issues at the international level are bound to affect African nations and therefore their participation in the debates and decision-making surrounding the international rights regime and public policy relevant to the Internet is extremely important. But do African countries have the capacity to understand, analyze and fully engage in the process? Are the various African stakeholders: governments, intergovernmental organizations, international non-governmental institutions, businesses, civil society organizations and individual citizens aware of and involved in the process? While some countries or stakeholders may be engaged to a certain extent there is still a very low level of participation by African stakeholders at the international level in these discussions and processes. It is therefore imperative that measures be taken to address this problem and help African stakeholders rise up to the challenge and meaningfully engage in this critical public policy issue.

Some of the critical areas that need to be addressed in Africa are public policy related to the Internet, legal frameworks that govern the Internet, regulation, universal access, internet security/cyber-security and intellectual property especially in the context of piracy and copyright protection. Firstly all nations should make plans to offer universal access and maintain policy that will not limit access for political purposes. The relationship between existing criminal laws and online expression needs to be looked at carefully and the creation of new laws needs to take full cognizance of the role that human rights play and the complexities that arise when regarding these rights and the Internet.