Online clamp threat to free expression

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda
Image: REUTERS/Hannah McKay

When Uganda last month ordered internet service providers to shut down all news sites that had not been authorised by the communications regulator, it was the latest attempt by President Yoweri Museveni’s government to constrict the space for independent media.

The regulator said that only 14 online publishers had met the requirements to remain online, including a $20 (R253) fee and an interpol clearance certificate.

If the directive is implemented in full, millions of websites would become inaccessible and Ugandans would be thrown into a virtual information blackout.

Uganda is not alone in its ambition to control online journalism.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, governments are taking aggressive steps to control what their citizens do and say online, justifying their suppression as necessary for public order and morality or security.

Unless this repressive trend is stemmed, Africa’s young but robust and diverse online media will wither.

As journalists today meet in Accra, Ghana, to mark World Press Freedom Day, openness of online journalism in Africa hangs in the balance.

In similar fashion to its northern neighbour, the government of Tanzanian President John Magufuli now requires bloggers to register, a privilege that could cost an initial $484 (R6 137) and another $440 (R5 579) annually.

Tanzania’s steep registration fee is most certainly impossible for many people in a country where gross national income per capita is $900 (R11 418).

Those who have not applied for registration by Saturday face, upon conviction, a fine of five million Tanzanian shillings (R27 885), a prison term of a minimum 12 months, or both.

Registration requirements pose a barrier to entry for those who want to have their voices heard online.

Free expression has flourished on the internet precisely because users are unencumbered by infrastructure, regulatory or financial demands that weigh so heavily on traditional media like newspapers, radio, or television.

Although the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) advocates for transparency in media ownership, there is fear that governments are collecting this information with the intention of being better able to target critical reporters and outlets.

Yet it is not just registration that is stifling online journalism.

On January 1 this year, editor-in-chief Timothy Elombah was arrested with his brother, Daniel, at their home, and charged in Abuja under Sections 24 and 26 of Nigeria’s 2015 Cybercrime Act.

Although Daniel was released, Timothy spent 25 days in detention.

During a meeting with the CPJ in Abuja, Timothy said he believes they were arrested and charged in reprisal for their critical reporting on Nigeria’s government.

A court hearing for their case is scheduled for today.

Nigeria’s cybercrime act and its vaguely worded offences have been repeatedly used against journalists, according to CPJ research.

For example, Section 24 (1-b) criminalises “grossly offensive” messages sent using a computer and Section 26 (c) may find guilty anyone that “insults publicly through a computer system or network”.
Ambiguously defined crimes can also be found in South Africa’s Film and Publications Amendment Bill.

In March this year, South Africa’s National Assembly approved amendments to the Films and Publications Act.

This will grant authorities wide powers to regulate online media content, including newspapers and social media.

While the government has argued it will protect children from explicit content and fight hate speech and revenge pornography, the South African Freelancers’ Association has criticised the bill, saying it would grant the state power to dictate what content can be posted online, crossing the fine line between protection and censorship.

South Africa’s intentions to control online media are not new.

During a meeting in June last year in Durban, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers expressed concern over South Africa’s cybercrime bill’s “vague language that affords opportunity for repressive implementation, as well as enhanced investigative and surveillance powers for security agents”.

If passed into law, both these bills would imperil online journalism in South Africa.

Across Africa, governments have sought to close the internet as an open space for journalism.

Ethiopia, Cameroon, Chad, DR Congo, Uganda and Somaliland have shut down internet access, in whole or in part, to control public debate during elections or public demonstrations.

Yet it is during these moments of political tension that citizens most need accurate information to make decisions.

This is not to say that the internet does not pose governance challenges.

Citizens and governments have reason to be concerned about disinformation, hate speech, and incitement to violence.

It is in this context that responsible journalism remains as important as ever.

But heavy-handed regulation that curbs press freedom and free expression is not the appropriate response.

Instead of silencing dissenting ideas, laws ought to nurture press freedom online.

For example, Nigeria’s National Assembly and Senate have passed the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill.

If signed into law by the president, the law would guarantee the rights of expression and information online, protect whistleblowers, and limit government censorship to specific, narrowly defined circumstances as mandated by a judge.

The proposed law in Nigeria shows that it is possible for African governments to write regulations and laws that work for, not against, journalists. But unfortunately this bill is the exception to a repressive norm.

  • The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is an independent, nonprofit organisation that promotes press freedom worldwide.

It defends the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal.


Muthoki Mumo is a CPJ East Africa Correspondent and Jonathan Rozen a CPJ Researcher