When browsing the Internet, I do not ask for much. I love funny articles, a good meme/hilarious Twitter trend and, on occasion, something a little Not Safe for Work (NSFW). The online space has become the world’s collective archive of ideas and conversations; a space where humanity can showcase what it is about –in case the aliens ever wanted to know.
Part of this collective sharing is the exchange of ideas that challenge the status quo. The use of the online space as the spark of revolution has been happening for some time now. One needs only to look at the role of the online networks in inspiring the Arab Spring or the election of Donald Trump, which some claim to have been given a (disastrous) boost by social media in the form of his manic tweeting and the proliferation of fake news on Facebook. And Russia…but we won’t go into that now.
Unfortunately, governments are becoming increasingly savvy to the power of the online space, especially those who do not want debate to happen. The use of cyber laws as a tool for governments to target and attack people who do not agree with them is on the rise.
Rounding Up the Outspoken
A prominent example right now is the arrest of Professor Stella Nyanzi, a Makerere University researcher who has been vocal about a number of issues within Uganda.
According to reports, Nyanzi was charged with ‘cyber harassment’ after using her social media accounts to criticise the government. More specifically, she criticised Janet Kataha Museveni, the Ugandan First Lady, who is also the Minister of Education and Sports, for failing to make sanitary pads available to school-going girls.
Dr Nyanzi argued that Ms Museveni had failed in her capacities as a First Lady, a mother, and education minister to advise her husband to fulfill his campaign pledge, even though she was well aware of “the difficulties and shame girls go through without sanitary pads during their menstruation periods”. She went on to say that “I should visit [Mrs. Museveni] without protection during my next menstruation period, sit on her spotless sofa and arise after staining her soul with my menstrual blood! That will be my peaceful demonstration in solidarity with Uganda’s poor adolescent girls”. She also called the president “a pair of buttocks”.
This critique was subsequently coupled with a campaign to raise money to buy pads for girls, which itself had an online element under the tag #PadsForUganda. Many within the country have since chosen to focus on Dr. Nyanzi’s spicy words rather than on the critique itself.But the government read between the swearing and took action, using a section of the Computer Misuse Act of 2011.
Following her hearing on 11 April 2017, Dr Nyanzi was denied bail and is to be remanded at Luzira Maximum Security Prison until 25 April. Her bail application will be heard then, but it will be contingent on the findings of a forced “examination of her mental status”. Calls for her release from detention have since brought about a new hash tag, #FreeStellaNyanzi.
These assaults are an increasingly worrying trend because the Internet is here to stay and we are only just scratching the surface of the online possibilities on the African continent. Right now, Internet penetration in Africa is only at 27.7%,whilst the world average is at 49,6%.
There have been other examples of cyber laws and restrictions being used against activists and dissenters around the world. Latoya Nugent, a prominent human rights activist in Jamaica, was charged with three counts of using a computer for malicious communication under section 9 (1) of the country’s Cybercrimes Act of 2015. In Cameroon, Internet and instant messaging services were cut following a government crackdown on protesters in the Anglophone part of the country.
Rise of the African Internet
These assaults on online freedom are an increasingly worrying trend because the Internet is here to stay and we are only just scratching the surface of the online possibilities on the African continent. Right now, Internet penetration in Africa is only at 27.7%,whilst the world average is at 49.6 %. But with the increase in the number of users, there is the potential that a host of important conversations about freedom of speech, debate and general tomfoolery will come under attack if certain people do not want these conversations to happen.
For now, their targets are the revolutionaries and the outspoken, but we know how these things go: First they came for the government critics and the minorities and we said nothing, then they came for those who posted news and Gifs on Facebook all the time and we said nothing. Then they came for the selfie takers…