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Illustration: Andrea Estefanía

This article was originally published as the editorial of Issue 1 of Southern Africa Digital Rights, an online publication produced under "The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms: Fostering a human rights-centred approach to privacy, data protection and access to the internet in Southern Africa" project.

Digital rights are under threat everywhere across the African continent at the moment. This is borne out and underscored by a string of influential reports over recent years from prominent regional and global civil society, multilateral and digital rights non-governmental organisations. The constricting of digital civic spaces through lawfare, the use of sophisticated spyware by some governments to invasively and violatingly intrude into and monitor people’s lives, pervasive social media mediated disinformation souring online experiences, rampant cyber criminal attacks and the dehumanising commercial surveillance economy all combine to degrade Africans’ online lives.

This is happening at a time when cyberspace also still shows so much promise as an avenue for achieving broad-based social justice, as well as unlocking socio-political and economic freedoms. African internet users remain resilient in the face of all manner of state-sponsored and private tech-enabled cyber threats and obstacles, and civil society actors across various countries continue to raise and amplify their voices and the hopes and aspirations of their constituencies even as their spaces for free expression, both online and offline, are being squeezed tighter and tighter by a range of malevolent actors and forces.

This project – an initiative of the African Declaration (AfDec) Coalition, supported by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and the Namibia Media Trust (NMT), and funded by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) – seeks to open up another avenue for elevating the voices of African civil society actors, specifically those scattered across six southern African countries in most of which democratic engagement spaces are increasingly, and in some severely, constrained. The project brings together civil society and digital rights researchers, activists and advocates from about 10 organisations spread over Botswana, Eswatini, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

These individuals and organisations are partnering and collaborating to shine a bright spotlight on the individual country-level digital rights and online civic spaces in which they operate. This six-country digital rights collage captures and portrays broader regional narrative streams in the quest to democratise the sub-regional cyber space. As part of our collaboration we will be bringing you regular updates concerning access to the internet and the state of data and online privacy in our respective countries. We will be bringing you these updates through six regional digests, of which this is the first, that we will be producing until May 2023.

In this first edition, we look at how civil society in Botswana, with regional support, managed to convince the government to make significant and meaningful changes to draft criminal procedures law that would have been a death-knell to digital privacy. We also discuss how in the wake of uprising and unrest ordinary citizens in Eswatini have to navigate a new reality under a newly imposed cybercrime law. Then there is the discussion of how the arrests of journalists and social media users are problematically characterising the digital rights space in Malawi.

In the same vein, Namibia is introducing mandatory SIM card registration and data retention regulations that could become a violation of the constitutionally enshrined right to privacy. In Zambia, civil society actors are pushing for the review and repeal of a cybercrime law that was brought in to suppress legitimate political expression. And from Zimbabwe, we bring you a discussion of how a complex range of issues are impacting the exercising of digital rights in the country. While all this might not make for happy reading, it certainly is important reading, and it showcases the will and commitment of those in each of the countries who continue to fight for freedoms, both online and offline. With all that said, we bring you Digital Rights Southern Africa.

Available in the first edition:

Editorial: Showcasing the will and commitment of those fighting

Republished above (by Frederico Links)

Botswana civil society organisations rebuff criminal procedures bill

The draft bill would have enabled surveillance abuse and privacy violations (by Thapelo Ndlovu)

Eswatini passes cyber laws under dark clouds

Kingdom enacts cyber crime and data protection laws in a climate of suspicion and unrest (by Ndimphiwe Shabangu)

Arrests mar Malawi’s digital rights landscape

Two recent cases point to concerning state surveillance practices and the undermining of free expression online (by Jimmy Kainja)

New surveillance regulations lurk threateningly in Namibia

The measures attack anonymity online and undermine the constitutional right to privacy (by Frederico Links)

Lungu law looms dangerously over Zambian digital rights

The previous administration brought in a cyber crime law that weaponised the internet (by Susan Mwape)

Affordable connectivity and privacy violations plague Zimbabwe

A complex range of issues are impacting the exercising of digital rights in the country (by Otto Saki and Nompilo Simanje)

Download and read the full issue here.