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Freedom of Expression and the Internet

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Sub-Saharan Africa Meeting on Freedom of Expression and the Internet
15-18 February 2011

The Department of Media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand recently hosted a Sub-Saharan Africa Expert Meeting on Freedom of Expression and the Internet in Johannesburg. This was one of a series of consultations and training workshops, which are jointly organised by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Mr. Frank La Rue, and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Other meetings were held in Asia, Latin America and MENA.

The purpose of these meetings is to explore the most pressing issues according to region, within the general topic of Internet freedom. Delegates to the Sub-Saharan meeting were from all over the African continent including Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Namibia and Uganda.

The meeting was broken into eight sessions over three days. During these sessions issues such as the problems of access to the internet, legal instruments to protect Freedom of Expression as well as those used by governments to erode that freedom, the collusion of ISPs with governments and their liability as intermediaries and campaigning and advocacy were discussed.

Case studies from all parts of the African continent were presented. The direst instance in which Freedom of Expression was being violated by a government was Uganda, where according to Geoffrey Ssebagala, from the Human Rights Journalist Network, conditions for journalists and activists were perilous. He said the Ugandan government was very repressive and was targeting all methods of communication including mobile phones, the Internet and postal deliveries. He even cited instances of government agents breaking into the houses of private citizens to take their mobile phones and laptops in an effort to ascertain whom they were communicating with and what they were saying. Arrests of networks of journalists and activists usually followed these break-ins.

Points of interest during the meeting included Guy Berger’s presentation during the session on Censorship; Henry Maina in the session on Legal instruments relating to Freedom of Expression and the Internet and Claire Ulrich’s presentation during the session on campaigning and advocacy.

Guy Berger from Rhodes University presented his notes on hate speech and the Internet using the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa as an example. He questioned whether it was time to revise old restrictions, which had become outdated.

Henry Maina of Article 19 in Kenya began his presentation by indicating that there are three major instruments that are applicable in Africa with regard to Freedom of Expression. These are the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights, the African union Convention on Prevention and Combating Corruption and Related Offences, and finally the African Charter on Democracy Elections and Governance. Mr. Maina also discussed the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of expression in Africa. He noted that while it is a declaration, it is the clearest available document on Internet freedom.

Editor of Global Voices’ in French Claire Ulrich presented a study of the use of the Internet for protest in Tunisia. She said the Tunisian uprising did not happen by chance. It was the result of the merging of cyber activism from exiled activists abroad and from an uprising in Tunisia. Despite great access to the Internet within Tunisia, the government was very repressive and censored the Internet through the use of filters that blocked words and sites on the Internet.

The meeting concluded with several recommendations being made regarding the thematic areas of each session. The information provided during this meeting will be included in Mr. Frank La Rue’s report to the UN Human Rights Council on Internet Freedom, and will also provide some specific advocacy plans for improving the situation of Internet freedom in the various Sub-Saharan regions.

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