Regulations are important to the proper functioning of economies and societies but sometimes tech regulations can limit freedom of speech.
By unfairly taxing, limiting access or banning tech-enabled communications such as social media, some African governments have affected the ability of their citizens to express themselves freely.
Sometimes implemented with the intention of protecting children or others from harmful content or reducing hate speech, and at other times introduced with the pure intention of censoring content or stopping citizens from communicating online, tech regulations often cause protests.
Here are 10 occasions when tech regulations limited freedom of expression in Africa.
The Cybercrime, Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill of 2019 was passed by Zimbabwe President Emerson Mnangagwa’s cabinet in October 2019. The regulation is designed to clamp down on the use of social media platforms by users who create and share what the government considers offensive or pornographic material. There are fears, however, from rights and democracy campaigners that the bill could allow the government to spy on the private communications of citizens and deal with protests that begin and spread on social media, at the source, according to Quartz.
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In July 2018, a controversial social media tax was introduced by the government. The social media tax was imposed on citizens who make use of social media sites, DailyNation reported. Ugandans had to pay $0.05 per day to use social media. Critics say the tax puts an undue burden on the poorest members of society, and that it is an assault on freedom of expression. In the three months following the introduction of the tax, the number of internet subscriptions to social media sites fell by more than 2.5 million, according to the Ugandan Communications Commission.
In March 2019, South Africa’s parliament passed the Films and Publications Amendment Bill, which would empower the Film and Publication Board to issue takedown orders for a wide range of content. The bill is meant to protect children from offensive and adult content while preventing hate speech, but analysts say the vague wording of the South African legislation will make online content vulnerable to censorship, according to Techcentral.
In 2018, the Egyptian government passed a new media law criminalizing the spread of “false news” for anyone with more than 5,000 social media followers — considered a “media outlet”. The law gave the government powers to block social media accounts and penalize journalists believed to be publishing fake news. The same bill makes it illegal to establish websites without obtaining a license from the Supreme Council and gives the government the ability to suspend or block existing websites or fine editors, The Guardian reports. Critics say it gives a legal basis to the government’s efforts to control social media, according to Reuters.
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In August 2017, the Communications Authority of Kenya announced that it would hold WhatsApp group administrators responsible for any hate speech and fake news shared on the platforms they manage. The announcement was made ahead of the presidential elections in the country, according to M&G. The warning served to scare WhatsApp users and group administrators, who could be held responsible for the posts of others on their group.
In October 2019, Uganda targeted media outlets it deems critical of the government. The Ugandan media regulatory body, the Ugandan Communications Commission, accused 13 radio and TV stations of violating broadcasting standards due to their coverage of opposition groups. It asked five of the media outlets to explain why their licenses should not be suspended, warned others, and suspended a radio show, according to HRW. In April 2019, the 13 stations being targeted had aired news reports covering the arrest of opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, and members of other opposition groups.
In February 2018, Kenya’s Communication Authority faced criticism for a plan to monitor social media usage and mobile phones with a built-in device capable of collecting text, voice and identity data from phones. Leading mobile operator Safaricom and rights groups raised concern that the spying device could be used as a back door to access sensitive customer data and confidential information. This argument helped stop the devices from being installed.
In June 2018, the Tanzanian government ordered all unregistered bloggers and online forums to suspend their websites immediately or face criminal prosecution. Critics accuse the government of tightening control over internet content. Tech regulations passed in March 2018 made it compulsory for bloggers and owners of online forums including YouTube channels to register with the government and pay around $900 for a license, according to Reuters. This amount is more than most Tanzanian bloggers can afford and many were forced to stop publishing their blogs.
In November 2019, Nigeria announced that it would tighten regulations on social media as part of a plan to fight fake news and disinformation. The new media code, established in July and approved by Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari, increases fines for indecency, inciting violence and hate speech from around $1,380 to around $13,800, according to TheStar. Analysts are concerned that the new media code could negatively affect online discussion and hurt the ability of media companies to operate effectively.
African governments are growing increasingly intolerant of free and uncensored internet access for citizens who go online to express discontent over the cost of living, rigged elections and those in positions of political power. In just the first few weeks of 2019, six countries – Sudan, Gabon, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Chad and South Sudan – either totally shut down internet connection for days or cut access to social media sites to curtail communication.