Cotonou (Benin) – Frequent internet shutdown and moves to hamper affordability restrict citizens’ rights to free speech, privacy and access to information, and therefore undermine efforts to bridge the digital divide, according to a research paper published this year by the Ugandan-based International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).
Such steps forestall the meaningful uptake of ICT, which has made digital technologies pivotal to the enjoyment of their rights and improvement of their livelihoods, the ‘’Digital Rights in Africa: Challenges and Options’’ paper added.
The government of Benin in West Africa shut down the internet during the controversial legislative elections of April 2019 in which opposition members were barred from participating. Access to social networks were only restored on July 13 after a year, three months, and 17 days.
Internet shutdown became like a sport during the 18-year rule of President Joseph Kabila, who ruled the mineral-rich DRC with an iron-fist. Gabon cut the internet this year at the height of a failed coup d’état meant to topple ailing president Ali Bongo.
Many cases of communication disruptions (SMS, phone calls) are still occuring in Africa, which also lacks a proper legislation on privacy and data protection. Furthermore, CIPESA slammed governments that impose digital taxation, and enact repressive laws to restrict online content under the excuse of fighting hate speech and ‘fake news’.
Tanzania, Uganda, DRC, Burundi and Zambia are among the countries in Africa which in 2018 proposed or passed laws and regulations that undermine public confidence in the use of online platforms, it said.
“This is worrying, as it comes while many governments are raising surveillance capacity even when there are insufficient independent safeguards to guide interception of communications or user information requests,” CIPESA said in its report.
Dozens of African bloggers and ordinary citizens have also been arrested, jailed and sentenced for criticising government policies or high-profile politicians on social media.
Prices too high
Meanwhile, the price of internet and ICT equipment in Africa continues to climb, to the dismay of users and consumers who firmly believe that the increase is the dictatorial governments’ plot to curtail internet freedom.
“My children are currently learning how to use a computer. I wanted to buy them a second-hand laptop, but the price of these equipments keeps rising day after day. I don’t think I can afford it right now,” Colette Akpovi, a 45-year-old personal assistant, said.
Benin has one of the lowest minimum wages in the world (about $68), and poverty continues to rise despite a robust economic growth.
“I think African governments should be lowering taxes for ICT equipemnt importers to allow them to sell these at affordable prices. If not, they should distribute computers to schools, youth training centres, public libraries and unversities to boost ICT usage and alleviate the digital divide,” Akpovi said.
Africa, which has the lowest ICT usage figures compared to other regions, also experiences a deep digital divide, CIPESA said in its document paper.
The Kampala-based NGO said African countries needed legislative and policy environments that enable the digital society to thrive – be it in the areas of innovation, affordable access or enjoyment of digital rights.
“Currently, there is limited citizens’ participation in making laws and regulations around the use of the internet and associated technologies,” it said.
“Undue restrictions to ICT access and usage, be it network disruptions, unwarranted content regulations, or disappropriate digital taxation, have far-reaching impacts on individuals’ livelihoods and the health of the national economy. “