In the past, demands for equality, good governance, justice and recognition of human rights on the continent seemed a preserve for opposition political players, civil society and in some instances, the traditional ‘private’ media. However, with the growth of mobile telephony and internet in Africa, that monopoly has been unbundled. The monopoly on the dissemination of information, free opinion and expression, organising and mobilisation is dead and buried.
Personally, I feel that the current internet governance processes on the continent are a litmus test of the extent to which Africans can engage on an equal footing on critical socio, economic and political issues. The rhetoric at a global level has resulted in a ‘simulation’ of the multi-stakeholder model across the continent through the National Internet Governance Forums (IGFs) that bring governments to interface with civil society, technologists, the private sector and ‘netizens’ to reach consensus on the development, use and governance of the Internet.
However, the ‘traditional’ culture of governance dominated by central government and affiliate institutions in the formulation of policy and regulation continues to present challenges and obstruct full and equal participation of stakeholders in people-centered governance.
Within the context of internet governance, government represented by the ministry of ICT’s and the relevant regulators, are key players in the formulation of Internet policy and regulation. In some cases, government spearheaded and dictates the pace in the processes often masking their dominance in insincere consultative processes.
It is crucial for governments to shift their view of the internet needing the same ‘controls’ imposed on traditional media. The Internet aids participatory democracy and opportunities to reach out to a populace without the geographical, transmission and circulation limitations seen in government interaction via the mainstream media. Unlike the media, it allows opportunities to engage and enhance citizen participation in national processes. This may initially be challenging as some governments, are not as open, transparent and accountable as expected, but it is undoubtedly an opportunity for change.
As governments are in the spotlight and face pressure for more open governance. Their response has, in some instances, come as varying forms of Internet censorship through total or partial shutdowns, state-sponsored surveillance and arrests and/or detention of bloggers, activists and ordinary citizens exercising rights online. Extreme cases of such censorship has been witnessed on the continent in the shutdown of the Internet in Egypt in 2011 , the 12-hour Internet curfew imposed in Gabon this September and the current Internet shutdown in Ethiopia following massive protests in the Oromia province.
Role of civil society
African Civil society must strengthen support channelled towards governments in the promotion of human rights. Human rights are not alien to governments, as they are signatory to a number of conventions and charters, all hinged on the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Within the Internet governance framework, government needs support in interacting with the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms which aims to promote human rights and openness in policy making and implementation of the policies. This interaction must include placing mechanisms in policy and law to ensure the full promotion of rights online during the implementation.
Admitedly, the relationship between African civil society and governments is largely antagonistic. This is because, civil society has played ‘devils advocate’ in its watchdog role and attempts to balance governance in the public interest. In Zimbabwe, for instance, government views civil society as having a ‘regime change’ agenda.
With that in mind, civil society must, within its mandate strategically position itself as a technical partner to government. Over the years, civil society has become integral in policy debates, norms, standard setting processes and governance arrangements at both national and supranational level. This position requires the employing of diplomatic strategies for lobby and engagement with government in consensus building processes.
According to Paradigm Initiative Nigeria Director, Gbenga Sesan cordial relationships between civil society and government in Nigeria have seen significant adoption of civil society proposals in ICT policy and Internet governance processes. This process can be achieved by identifying individuals in political party structures or parliament that can influence adoption of progressive policies.
Alternative lobby approaches are an acknowledgement that while multistakeholderism strategy brings everyone together, power dynamics still exist. It is not only enough to participate, but it is critical to influence.
‘African lives do matter’ and the media that must ensure people are central by raising awareness on their socio, economic and political rights and their centrality in development and governance.
Reporting internet policy is complex mainly because of the conflicting interests of the key stakeholders. These include the interests of the government in the context of ‘national security’ and ‘public order’. It also includes private sector interests of profiteering, licensing conditions and operations in fragile states following social mobilization as witnessed in the 2011 Arab Spring and subsequent an online social movements #FeesMustFall in South Africa and Zimbabwe’s #ThisFlag.
Noting their role at the intersection of human rights and cyberspace, media must be vigilant in understanding, articulating and contextualising , not only cyberlaws, but other national laws that may violate citizens’ rights in contradiction to constitutional provisions. It is unacceptable for media not to appreciate internet governance issues, especially with the ubiquity of information available online.
The media must guard against propagandising digital rights through misinformation. Media lobby and advocacy organisation, MISA-Zimbabwe, in August 2016 noted misleading reports by the state print and public broadcaster on what constitutes cyber terrorism. The repercussions of such poor and biased reportage are fear and self-censorship in the exercise of citizen rights to free expression, association and accessing information. In the long run, such reporting will result in the continents failure to realise the full political and economic potential of the Internet. The media must realise that well researched and ethical reporting puts pressure on relevant authorities to ensure justice and equality.
Government, civil society and the media should effectively play their role in the achievement of democratic societies in Africa in a complementary multi-stakeholder strategy reliant on mutual respect and trust.