Koliwe Majama

Digital Rights and Policy Specialist

Zimbabweans are learning to utilise social media to speak about their repressive government and fight for better policies.

This article was commissioned and first published by DW Akademie, as part of the Media and Information Literacy week commemorations.

Media and Information Literacy is essential for citizens to claim their human rights, especially in the digital sphere. Zimbabwean digital rights activist Koliwe Majama explores the barriers against MIL in Africa.

Although comparatively lower than in other parts of the globe, the increase in internet access and technologies in Africa has evolved the telecommunication sector, bringing about marked and significant efficiency in public services, ease in doing business, and diversity and plurality of media platforms and content. However, digital rights activists in the region continue to express concerns about the sincerity of governments in ensuring that citizens have meaningful connectivity and are fully equipped with the necessary skills that will enable them to experience the utilitarian value of the internet. 

The importance of media and information literacy (MIL) among citizens in this digitized environment cannot be overstated. With its roots in the Moscow Declaration on Media and Information Literacy, MIL is defined as a combination of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and practices required to access, analyse, evaluate, use, produce and communicate information and knowledge in creative, legal and ethical ways that respect human rights. UNESCO added knowledge of one’s rights online, combating online violence, understanding of the ethics around access and use of information, and the engagement with media and ICTs in the promotion of equality, free expression, intercultural and interreligious dialogue to the competencies. The pillars of MIL make connections between media and information literacy and digital and ICT literacy, bringing digital rights to the fore. 

Government backlash against MIL 

In today’s digitized environment, MIL revolves around use and access to the internet. The internet has opened new channels of communication for socially marginalized and vulnerable groups and empowered people to organize themselves more efficiently while innovating digital services to improve economic growth.  

However, the manner in which MIL has revolutionized the media and information sharing among citizens — not only in the exercise of their civic rights, but also in pursuit of good governance and social justice — has resulted in backlash from some governments. In Africa, this backlash is characterized by the control and undermining of the exercise of human rights online. Increasingly, there is an adoption of more stringent laws and policies to regulate and control the use of the internet, trends of censorship and surveillance, and repression of freedom of expression. 

Gender, data costs a major barrier 

Africa’s digital divide also significantly contributes to low media, information and digital literacy among the population. In its two strands as an urban-rural and gender divide, this digital divide is exacerbated mostly by poor and limited infrastructure, high data costs, and lack of access to technologies by socially marginalized and vulnerable groups. Broadband access costs in the region remain extremely high with the average cost for 1GB constituting up to 7.12% of the average salary. This negatively impacts the right to access the internet for the majority, who live below the poverty line. Women make up the majority of the affected populace and — as well as lack of access to technologies — have a lower level of the basic literacy skills needed to engage with online content. Even then, that content is usually in a handful of languages or generally lacks appeal to the group. In a recent study, the World Wide Web Foundation noted that the lack of ICT literacy skills keeps women offline. 

Holistic approach needed 

Calls have been made to governments and private sector players to develop strategies to increase internet access for digitally excluded communities. For example, the recently revised and adopted African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa calls for the adoption of laws, policies and other measures for universal, equitable, affordable, and meaningful internet access. Apart from improvement of infrastructure, better pricing of data packages and promotion of local access initiatives, the declaration lists the facilitation of digital literacy skills for inclusive and autonomous use. Overall, this implies the need for a holistic skills development strategy hinged on a better understanding and appreciation of the benefits of the internet in overall development and a clearer focus on the skills required by different sections of society.  

For MIL to flourish, the right to freedom of expression, including freedom to seek, receive and impart information should be respected and promoted. This is because freedom of expression remains a fundamental pillar of democracy. Yet in Africa, violations against free expression have extended online, resulting in surveillance and censorship as governments crackdown on, and detain, human rights defenders, journalists and activists. In most instances they cite the provision of national security and stability as justification to deny the sharing of information. Usually, the effect of this targeted clampdown on divergent views and activism results in censorship among ordinary citizens and self-policing on popular social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. This creates a culture of fear and results in the limited use of social media platforms for engagement in critical national discourse. A recent demonstration of this is the arrest of Zimbabwean journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition activist, Jacob Ngarivhume in July 2020 for inciting public violence through their Twitter handles. 

In today’s digitized environment, MIL revolves around use and access to the internet. The internet has opened new channels of communication for socially marginalized and vulnerable groups and empowered people to organize themselves more efficiently while innovating digital services to improve economic growth.  

However, the manner in which MIL has revolutionized the media and information sharing among citizens — not only in the exercise of their civic rights, but also in pursuit of good governance and social justice — has resulted in backlash from some governments. In Africa, this backlash is characterized by the control and undermining of the exercise of human rights online. Increasingly, there is an adoption of more stringent laws and policies to regulate and control the use of the internet, trends of censorship and surveillance, and repression of freedom of expression. 

Gender, data costs a major barrier 

Africa’s digital divide also significantly contributes to low media, information and digital literacy among the population. In its two strands as an urban-rural and gender divide, this digital divide is exacerbated mostly by poor and limited infrastructure, high data costs, and lack of access to technologies by socially marginalized and vulnerable groups. Broadband access costs in the region remain extremely high with theaverage cost for 1GB constituting up to 7.12% of the average salary. This negatively impacts the right to access the internet for the majority, who live below the poverty line. Women make up the majority of the affected populace and — as well as lack of access to technologies — have a lower level of the basic literacy skills needed to engage with online content. Even then, that content is usually in a handful of languages or generally lacks appeal to the group. In a recent study, the World Wide Web Foundation noted that the lack of ICT literacy skills keeps women offline. 

Holistic approach needed 

Calls have been made to governments and private sector players to develop strategies to increase internet access for digitally excluded communities. For example, the recently revised and adopted African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa calls for the adoption of laws, policies and other measures for universal, equitable, affordable, and meaningful internet access. Apart from improvement of infrastructure, better pricing of data packages and promotion of local access initiatives, the declaration lists the facilitation of digital literacy skills for inclusive and autonomous use. Overall, this implies the need for a holistic skills development strategy hinged on a better understanding and appreciation of the benefits of the internet in overall development and a clearer focus on the skills required by different sections of society.  

For MIL to flourish, the right to freedom of expression, including freedom to seek, receive and impart information should be respected and promoted. This is because freedom of expression remains a fundamental pillar of democracy. Yet in Africa, violations against free expression have extended online, resulting in surveillance and censorship as governments crackdown on, and detain, human rights defenders, journalists and activists. In most instances they cite the provision of national security and stability as justification to deny the sharing of information. Usually, the effect of this targeted clampdown on divergent views and activism results in censorship among ordinary citizens and self-policing on popular social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. This creates a culture of fear and results in the limited use of social media platforms for engagement in critical national discourse. A recent demonstration of this is the arrest of Zimbabwean journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition activist, Jacob Ngarivhume in July 2020 for inciting public violence through their Twitter handles. 

MIL thrives in an environment with enabling legislation. However, the contradictions in the procedure and substance of cyber laws in most African countries hinders the benefits of a diverse and plural media, access to information and digital rights. Cyber legislation in Africa has been criticized for its emphasis on security at the expense of the protection and promotion of the rights of its citizens. While citizens should demand these rights, the onus remains on the government to ensure a democratic digital environment.

In an episode of The Breakdown, a program hosted by BBC Africa, Koliwe Majama is featured offering input on the impact of disinformation and misinformation on our understanding of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At this year’s Global Media Forum (GMF) 2020 sponsored by DW’s Akademie, Koliwe and three other panelists spoke on the increasing importance of media and information literacy as a critical tool in this digital age amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other issues Koliwe highlighted the need for “community networks” in a continent where many African states control which information is made available to the public, and not all countries have economies strong enough to set up a digital infrastructure, leaving young people in danger of believing false reports and rumors that cloud their minds.

Read more expansive coverage on the session on the DW website.

Koliwe Majama was a panelist at a discussion on Media and Information Literacy at the 7th online session of the Global Media Forum.

The panel had a comprehensive discussion on the importance of media and information literacy to curb misinformation and fake news, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In her contribution, Koliwe Majama called attention to the need to equip citizens with media and information literacy so that they will be in a position to identify and evaluate the credibility of media content and distinguish it from misinformation and dis-information; identify potential abusers, technology spies and hackers; and  understand privacy implications when using and sharing data with any third parties. Koliwe Majama emphasized the need for an increase in access to information across the African continent to bolster any efforts on media and information literacy, because ‘the more people have access to media content and information, the more they become literate about the media and various sources of information.’


Zimbabwe is set to commemorate the International Day for Universal Access to Information on the 28th of September 2020. This comes at a time when the country, alongside the rest of the world, is faced with a health pandemic that has moved citizens’ daily communication, education, work, trade, and access to basic services from physical interactions to, mostly, online interactions. The World Health Organisation declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic, a few months after the adoption of a revised Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (the Declaration) at the 65th Ordinary Session of African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in November 2019. For Africa, the pandemic has merely served as emphasis that internet rights and freedoms are more important now than ever before.

The access to information principles contained in the revised Declaration include principles on proactive and maximum disclosure of information, information management, access to information procedures and the applicable exemptions, oversight mechanisms, whistle-blower protection, and the primacy of access to information laws. However, the highlight of the revision of the Declaration is the enumeration of normative standards for freedom of expression and access to information in a digitised environment. This is done through the inclusion of principles on access to the internet, internet intermediaries and access providers, privacy and the protection of personal information, and communication surveillance.

Increasing access to the internet

Principle 37(2) of the Declaration calls on States to “recognise that universal, equitable, affordable and meaningful access to the internet is necessary for the realisation of freedom of expression [and] access to information.” In this regard, the Declaration states that countries must “adopt laws, policies and other measures to promote affordable access to the internet,” particularly for children and marginalized groups.
Internet accessibility in Zimbabwe generally remains low, mainly because of limited infrastructure, especially in rural areas, where most Zimbabweans are located. By the end of 2019, the internet penetration rate in rural Zimbabwe stood at only 10 percent, presenting the reality of a stark urban-rural digital divide where the nationwide internet penetration rate stood around 60 percent. In this year’s second quarter report, the country’s telecommunications regulator, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (POTRAZ), noted a decline in both mobile and internet penetration. This was attributed to the depressed demand in the economy, at both household and industry level, with direct impact of COVID-19 on both the formal and informal sector negatively affecting disposable incomes. Active mobile subscriptions dipped by 6.7 percent from 13,7 million to 12,7 million, while active internet and data subscriptions dropped by 4 percent, resulting in internet penetration reduction from 59.1 percent in the first quarter to 56.7 percent.
While POTRAZ has set up 87 Community Information Centres around the country, geared towards promoting internet access in marginal communities, a long term and sustainable solution is necessary. In its position paper on COVID-19 and its impact on digital rights the pan Africa digital rights initiative, the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms Coalition, highlights the importance of a licensing and regulatory framework for community-owned networks. Community networks are decentralised community-built and owned internet connections. They are the most effective way to overcome digital exclusion in areas isolated from the social and economic dynamics of the digital era. The call should, therefore, be for the opening up of equal opportunities for Zimbabweans in underserved areas to access spectrum under a licensing regime with exemption provisions that will lessen administrative processes for small operators, not-for-profit operators, and other actors interested in community networks. This will result in an increase in access to the internet and the advancement of the right to information on the internet in Zimbabwe

Online content regulation

The rights to freedom of expression and access to information are cornerstones of democracy that are key to the enjoyment of other human rights. Their inextricable link lies in the fact that for the ideas expressed to be of value, there is a need for access to verifiable information, which in this case, is usually held by both public and private bodies. Citizens can only hold those in power accountable when they can access information. The signing into law of Zimbabwe’s Freedom of Information Act lays a good foundation in setting the procedure for accessing information held by both private and public institutions which is necessary for the exercise or the protection of citizens’ rights.
However, Africa is increasingly plagued by both on and offline restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information with incidences of censorship, harassment, and detention of journalists, activists, and human rights defenders as they share critical information or opinions. Control of these traditionally ‘problematic’ groups has moved from the offline to the online space and now also includes intimidation and harassment of ordinary internet users. Zimbabweans have not been spared of monitoring and controlling of their internet use and access as a means of curtailing the enjoyment and advancement of digital rights. Direct control is demonstrated by the disruption of internet services with the most recent case being in January 2019 under the order of the State Security Minister. Disruption of services demonstrates the extent to which the government is willing to limit online access to information.
Indirect control is evident in the increased deployment of anonymised social media accounts on popular platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which seek mainly to disrupt critical socio, economic and political conversations and, to an extent, channel out disinformation. A key characteristic of these accounts is that they usually push the agenda of the government and the ruling ZANU-PF by overshadowing dissenting voices to manipulate conversations.

Privacy, surveillance, and data protection

The development of the indirect control and monitoring of online communications is a serious threat, especially when viewed against, remarks made by the Zimbabwe National Army Commander, Edzai Chimonyo at a military graduation earlier in the year, where he announced that the military would start monitoring citizens private communications to ‘guard against subversion’. Such remarks have raised concerns about the government’s sincerity in drawing a cybersecurity and data protection law for the country.
However, the importance of data protection legislation in Zimbabwe cannot be understated given recent concerns over privacy of citizens’ information. These include the lack of clarity and transparency on the ‘sophisticated algorithm’ to determine distribution of aid during the (coronavirus) pandemic and the High Court challenge by MISA Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association over a police warrant seeking information on mobile phone operator’s transactions, which was successfully contested.
Principles 40- 42 of the ACHPR Declaration address the protection of personal information and communication surveillance within the ambit of the right to privacy by establishing a legal framework for the protection of personal information. Principle 42 makes provision for States to ensure that individuals consent to the processing of their personal information is not excessive, is transparent, and in accordance with the purpose for which it was collected. Additionally, individuals must have access to the personal information that is being processed and must be given an opportunity to object to the processing.

Conclusion

The steps taken by the international community and regional bodies to facilitate the full enjoyment of the rights to access to information and freedom of expression, both online and offline, will be bolstered by appropriate data protection and cybersecurity regulations implemented by the government of Zimbabwe. The commemoration of the International Day for Universal Access to Information is both a reminder and an opportunity to further solidify internet rights in Zimbabwe, and around the continent, by implementing and adopting the principles and laws discussed above.


This article was commissioned by MISA Zimbabwe for a special supplement for the International Day for Universal Access to Information published in Zimbabwe’s daily newspapers, The Daily News and The NewsDay


Koliwe Majama gave the keynote address on the State of the Internet at the 2020 Hub Unconference, an annual new media and journalism conference hosted by the Magamba Network.

Official HUB UnConference marketing banner featuring Koliwe | PIC: Shoko Festival, Magamba Network

In her address, Koliwe Majama highlights the need for the full adoption and implementation of internet rights and freedoms at a time when most of our interactions have moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic and, simultaneously, our internet penetration rate has decreased due to reasons attributed to the current pandemic. She recommends the full engagement of civil society, governments, the private and public sectors, and other industry experts to mitigate the effects of the current pandemic on internet rights and to further solidify internet rights and freedoms across the board.  

Koliwe captured giving her State of Internet in Zimbabwe keynote | PIC: Shoko Festival, Magamba Network
Koliwe captured giving her State of Internet in Zimbabwe keynote | PIC: Shoko Festival, Magamba Network

Click here to watch a recording of the presentation. Read the keynote address here.

Zimbabwe’s leading civil society groups have petitioned the High Court seeking to block a lower court order requiring Econet Wireless to hand over its subscribers information.

In this research Koliwe and co-researcher, Chenai Chair document the lived realities and effects of Zimababwe’s digital ID system among marginalised communities

The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms (AfDec) Coalition have set 2020 as the year for robust advocacy for an open and free internet as well as the strategic promotion of online human rights in Africa.

AfDec’s work is hinged on the promotion of the 13 principles of the African Declaration. The Coalition is a Pan-African initiative aimed at promoting principles of openness in internet policy formulation and implementation. The Declaration also seeks to enhance online rights on the continent.

At the end 2019, nine Coalition member organisations received grants under the Coalition’s Strategic Advocacy Fund to implement activities in Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, The Gambia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Although the majority of the interventions will be implemented at the national level, they are set to impact the whole continent as they are designed to be adaptable.

While mapping trends of in government controls of the internet in the past decade, an AfDec member, the Collaboration for ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), highlighted the years 2016-2019 as the peak of internet controls on the continent. This was attributed to an increase in internet shutdowns, which came either as total blockades or in most instances, were targeted mostly at popular social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter. In 2019 alone, six countries on the continent – Algeria, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Sudan and Zimbabwe – registered network disruptions.

With the support of a Strategic Advocacy Fund grant, the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) will litigate against internet shutdown cases in Nigerian national courts and at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). The project reinforces two of the Declaration’s principles, freedom of expression and internet access and affordability, and seeks to secure a decision that will be applicable across the African continent.

Internet access and use are on the increase. Based on statistics from the International Telecommunications Union, by the end of 2019, Africa recorded an 8.2% increase in internet penetration from 20% in 2015. Mobile internet access accounts for most of this figure. Although mobile internet access continues to grow, the digital gender divide remains a reality as women are 13% less likely to own a mobile phone and 41% less likely to use mobile internet than men.

In addressing this issue, the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), in their grant-funded project, takes a multi-pronged approach to breaking this barrier. Through its activities, the organisation seeks to increase the digital literacy and security of women’s organisations, ordinary women and girls and human rights defenders, as well as their knowledge of existing internet policies and regulations that have an impact on their rights and the general achievement of gender equality.

In 2019, African citizens continued to organise and mobilise civic action in the face of rising discontent via social media. There was a four-month nationwide protest in Sudan, popularised on social media as #SudanUprising, calling for Omar al-Bashir to step down after three decades in power. In Algeria’s capital city on 1 November 2019, social media was used to fill the streets in protest against the country’s 65th independence anniversary. Algerian citizens demanded what they termed a “new independence”. Protests in the country had begun in February 2018 and ended in early January 2020. Both Sudan and Algeria experienced protest-related internet disruptions and faced massive government pressure aimed at stopping the citizens from organising online.

In its AfDec project, Cameroonian-based PROTEGE QV will focus on the principle of freedom of assembly and association and the internet, which upholds the right to use the internet and digital technologies in relation to freedom of assembly and association, including through social networks and platforms. The project is a follow-up to research done in 2018 which evaluated the application of the 13 key principles of the African Declaration by the Cameroonian government. The research found that freedom of assembly and association and the internet was the least recognised of the principles. The project will propose recommendations in national-level policy debates on the revision of national laws and regulations.

Media rights activists on the continent also acknowledge social media’s increasing vulnerability as it opens up space for alternative opinions and information against a highly censored, controlled and regulated mainstream media. In its continuing work for a free, independent and diverse pluralistic media, the project undertaken with the support of an AfDec grant by the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, “Using the Internet to Promote Free Expression and Information Access in Zimbabwe”will focus on the principles of freedom of expression and the right to information. The project aims to increase awareness of free expression and access to information in the country by making connections in the new media environment with the increase in internet access. The timeliness of the project is marked by current media law reform processes in the country following the gazetting of a new law, the Freedom of Information Bill, in July 2019.

The Coalition is also alive to the need to grow a critical mass that can influence the adoption of policy that upholds digital rights as a means of achieving sustainable development, good governance and social justice on the continent. Four organisations – the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), the Association des Utilisateurs des TIC (ICT Users Association, ASUTIC) in Senegal, and The Gambia YMCA Computer Training Centre and Digital Studio – will work to identify and equip stakeholders to defend the same.

The YMCA’s project targets youth actively involved in advocacy work and community outreach in The Gambia in a digital rights training programme for interventions in the country’s transition. AFIC’s project will focus on civil society, human rights institutions, and other key stakeholders in the regulation of the internet in Uganda in order to understand and appreciate digital rights with a focus on access to the internet as a fundamental right and freedom. While the civil society interventions will use the African Declaration as a tool to strengthen the capacity of civil society actors in the whole of West Africa, ASUTIC intends to launch a national coalition of human rights organisations, including activists and journalists, for the protection and promotion of online rights. The focus will mainly be on the principles of freedom of expression and information, privacy and personal data protection.

While ASUTIC will work on a national agenda on privacy and personal data protection, the South African public interest advisory firm ALT Advisory will push a more regional intervention. Data privacy and protection has remained on the agenda of the African Internet Governance Forum for over three years, a position set to be maintained following the adoption of the African Continental Free Trade Area.

ALT Advisory launched the Data Protection Africa online portal to assist states to adopt clear legal, regulatory and policy frameworks on privacy and personal data protection. The project targets civil societies to advocate for and monitor the rights to privacy and personal data protection; intermediaries in the development of company policies on privacy and data protection; and academic, research and training institutions in the generation of evidence-based research and courses on the theoretical and practical aspects of data protection.

The strategic advocacy activities are part of the Coalition’s project “Securing human rights online in Africa through a strong and active ‘African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms’ network”. In 2019 the Coalition finalised a two-year strategy which ends in 2021, whose main objective is to contribute to the development of national and regional internet-related policy frameworks that promote and respect human rights across Africa. While 2020 presents an opportunity for growth in online access, the political terrain in most African countries is riddled with stumbling blocks. As more people demand good governance, democracy and the upholding of human rights, there will be more concerted efforts by some governments to suppress internet access and activism, which makes these activities more crucial than ever.

This article originally appeared on the AfDEC website.
Read here: https://africaninternetrights.org/updates/2020/01/article-836/ (English)

For the French translation of the article visit:
https://www.apc.org/fr/news/plaidoyer-africain-pour-un-internet-robuste-ouvert-et-libre-en-2020%5D

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