Social media and human rights: Are nervous African governments disrupting freedom of expression?

This blog would be illegal in Tanzania and anyone accessing it in Uganda via twitter or Facebook would be liable to pay a government tax. In Zambia any Whatsapp groups discussing its content may in future be required to register with the government and ensure that any discussions are conducted within acceptable cultural boundaries. Such is the tension between freedom of expression and access to information and some African governments’ jitters over the regulation of social media.

In Tanzania, the government has introduced a $930 fee for bloggers as part of new requirements regulating blogs and similar websites. Under the newly introduced Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2018, bloggers aiming their content at audiences in Tanzania need to submit, among other things, a human resource development plan, share capital, tax certificates, estimated investments and a technical description for the facilities they operate from. Those convicted of defying this law would be subjected to a fine of $2,200, imprisonment for a minimum of 12 months or both. Whilst the deadline for complying with these new regulations was temporarily halted by a court injunction, the government has still proceeded to enforce the new law resulting in a number of online bloggers and websites already going out of business.

Meanwhile in Uganda, the government has introduced a new law requiring social media users of sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp to pay a daily fee amounting to around $0.05 a day. The government has defended the measure by claiming it’s a tax aimed at assisting it in raising much needed revenues for the country. Met with predictable demonstrations and criticism, the Ugandan government has now said it will review the new tax in light of people’s comments.

In Zambia, the government has suggested the introduction of a new law to register all Whatsapp group administrators in order to ensure that people in ‘Zambia behaved and communicated within acceptable and expected cultural boundaries.’ The government has however not introduced any laws choosing instead to work with the country’s telecoms regulator. These actions are reminiscent of Kenya in 2016 when the President there signed a new Computer and Cybercrimes Law aimed at bringing criminal charges against people deemed to have ‘intentionally published false, misleading or fictitious data’. Ethiopia conducted similar steps in 2016 when access to social media was blocked in order to stop the spread of false rumours and prevent students from being distracted as they sat their exams.

What is apparent is that the proliferation of social media and spread of information online is challenging traditional African governments’ tendencies to control huge swathes of the media. Whilst it is true that false information does spread quickly online, governments need to respond proportionately in order to safeguard individual freedoms of expression and access to information. Curbs to the use of social media and spread of information online should not be used as a pretext to stifle opposition voices critical of government activities or undermine attempts by individuals to mobilise and exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and association.

Exactly how individual governments respond to the disruptive nature of social media and spread of information online remains to be seen, but what is certain is that traditional human rights and individual freedoms must not be compromised in the name of cultural boundaries. Instead governments can seize the opportunities provided by new media to bolster legitimate information gathering and valuable statistics about their own citizens, improve the economy by the promotion of online payment systems provided by technologies like Whatsapp and harness the efficiency of online information to improve education and literacy standards in Africa. Human rights and tech can be compatible without the need to undermine either.

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