By Paige Hamilton

Legislation to fight ‘fake news’ and cyber-crimes across Sub-Saharan Africa endangers press freedom

Internet penetration in Africa is still the lowest among the continents, with only 21.8% in 2017.  Nonetheless, access to the internet has remained a vital resources for populations as it facilitates education, freedom of expression, entrepreneurship, and democracy; even heads of state employ social media. Yet despite these benefits, an increasing number of Sub-Saharan national governments are taking legal measures to limit their citizens’ use of the internet.

Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and now Zambia are the latest perpetrators. Governments are issuing new bills to supposedly prevent the spreading of false information and protect national cyber-security; they include fines, licence fees, and an unchecked power to block websites. Critics globally recognise that in actuality, these laws limit an individual’s right to information and self-expression.

Here, we highlight a few of the most prominent examples where governments are  levying such laws and impeding freedom of the media and freedom of expression.

Uganda: 117th in RSF World Press Freedom Index 2018

Earlier this year in April, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni proposed that Parliament draft a bill to tax social media accounts to regulate ‘fake news’ and information from spreading on popular platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. The tax, he added later, would bring in millions of Ugandan shillings to the National Treasury.  The attempt to regulate “opinions, prejudices [and] insults” was put into effect on 1 July and has been met with widespread public outcry.

The cost of access to social media sites is now $0.05 per day, meaning that monthly fees amount to $1.5. When average revenue per user (ARPU) of telecom services is just $2.5 per month, the tax takes an uneven toll across socio-economic groups.

The Ugandan Minister of ICT argued that the levy would fund increased broadband infrastructure. While this would improve transmission and access to the government owned public TV broadcaster, UBC, it would not improve the reach of UBC Radio, a medium that is traditionally more widely accessible. Opponents of the tax argue that it unjustly targets not only the poor but also women and youth. Preventing these groups’ access to information denies them knowledge, freedom of speech, and entrepreneurship opportunities some said.

Less than two weeks later, amid protests against the social media tax and an additional raise on the tax applied to electronic money transfers, Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda decided to put the bills under review. Although the social media bill was projected to remain, on July 18th Museveni called the parliamentary caucus together to discuss it further. They determined that the taxation does not negatively impact research or education and approved its continued implementation.

Kenya: 96th in RSF World Press Freedom Index 2018

In August 2017, Uhuru Kenyatta  won the Kenyan presidential election. The mainstream post-election media sphere lacked significant coverage, leading many Kenyans to  rely on social media for updates, many of which revealed election violence and a large number of deaths. The chaos described and supposed footage of the violence between opposing political groups spread on social media and instilled anxiety and discomfort across the nation. Many skeptics questioned the validity of those social media posts.

It has subsequently come to light that ‘fake news’ sharing bots were present in 24.8% and 27.6% respectively of political discourse during the August and following October election after the supreme court called for a revote.

By criminalising those who share unauthorised government data, the state has endangered whistleblowers

Now, a seemingly reactionary law has been passed in the country that fines transgressors £37,000 or up to two years in prison for publishing ‘fake news’. By criminalising those who share unauthorised government data, the state has endangered whistleblowers. The bill includes many other related internet regulations allegedly meant to stop illegal usages such as cyber-crime and child pornography. The Committee to Protect Journalists has been vocal about the repercussions of the bill; most notably, the government endorsed and executed suppression of press freedom. Only a few months earlier, in February, the Kenyan government shutdown three independent TV news stations when an oppositional political leader when on television to announce his presidency. The government’s act displayed a disregard for publicly serving media and a control over the nation’s information dissemination channels.

Tanzania: 93rd in RSF World Press Freedom Index 2018

In late March, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli issued his own ‘new media’ regulations, the Electronic and Postal Communications Regulation, requiring all online radio, TV, blogs, and “other online services” purchase a  licence fee. The licence alone costs $900 and there are additional annual fees for operation. The government’s monitoring body hold the right to suspend licenses if a site is judged to have posted  ‘indecent, obscene, hate speech, extreme violence or material that will offend or incite others, cause annoyance, threaten, or encourage or incite crime, or lead to public disorder”. Failure to remove the post within 12 hours would result in further fines.

Reporters Without Borders issued a statement, denouncing the bill, echoing many other critics, arguing that the law threatens freedom of expression and access to information. The nation has state-run papers, TV, and radio outlets; stifling privately owned and independent voices,  potentially leaving citizens with only government approved messages. The legislation’s broad definition for a ‘blog’ grants officials little discretion when determining who to silence, therefore allowing the state to increasingly narrow the available news outlets available to their citizens.

Zambia: 113th in RSF World Press Freedom Index 2018

Zambia are also planning to implement regulatory laws on the media; like Kenya, the legislation is being advertised as a measure to fight cyber-crimes. Three bills, the Cyber Security and Cybercrime Bill, Data Protection Bill, and Electronic Commerce and Transactions Bill, are currently being drafted in secrecy, despite journalists’ requests to be involved in the process.

President Edgar Lungu and his government claim the changes will protect citizens’ freedoms but the African Freedom of Expression Exchange is concerned that the bills will rather infringe on freedoms.  Communications minister Brian Mushimba argued that social media was dissolving Zambian national identity and cultural norms.

This overview highlights how the unifying and democratizing potential of social media, is being stifled across Sub Saharan Africa. Moreover, the silencing efforts being conducted by governments across the region, through formal legislation and under the guise of protecting citizens from “fake news”, will not only be detrimental to free speech but also media freedom and the ability of journalists to disseminate information online.

Header Image: Parliament of the Republic of Uganda, Kampala. Credit: M.Torres/istock