The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) has commenced what it intends to be a long-term advocacy to promote internet freedom in the West Africa region. The initiative is aimed at enhancing freedom of expression online by limiting governmental restrictions and increasing opportunities for greater access and use of the internet among citizens.
Initial interventions under the project are being carried out in partnership with the London-based Global Partners and Associates (GPA) and focused on Ghana. Activities will include research on the internet environment, media and civil society capacity building in internet freedom and digital rights advocacy, and formation of national internet freedom coalitions.
In line with its commitment to enhance internet freedom in the West Africa region, the MFWA, in partnership with the US-based Freedom House Inc., recently trained its freedom of expression rights monitors from 13 out of the 16 countries in the region. The training was aimed at enhancing the capacity of the monitors to effectively track and report on emerging freedom of expression rights issues with significant indicators on digital rights violations.
Current figures indicate that internet usage in Africa is increasing at an annual average rate of approximately 36 percent, predicting an overwhelming internet penetration and use in Africa within the next few decades.
While the increasing internet penetration and use in Africa is viewed as a positive development, there is evidence of increasing resort to sophisticated and legal restrictions by several governments to limit citizens? access and use of the internet. Methods of restriction have included surveillance, blocking of sites and the passage of new laws or application of existing ones, to restrict user anonymity, user privacy and general free expression online.
Early this month for example, the Gambian government passed a new draconian legislation meant to stifle freedom online.? The new law (Information and Communication Act 2013), allows for a 15 year jail term and/or a whopping US$90,000 fine for the offence of “publication of false news” about the government on the internet.
In Nigeria, the regions biggest economy and Africa?s leader in internet penetration and use, there are a number of draft laws ? generally considered restrictive ? meant to regulate various aspects of the internet and its use. There are ongoing processes to finalise and have those laws in place. There have been similar and ongoing attempts by many other governments in the region to resort to legislative processes to limit internet freedom and freedom of expression online.
So far, there has been little or no indication of commitment on the part of governments to involve or consult civil society in the development of legislation and policies for the regulation of the internet. On the other hand, the majority of African civil society groups have limited or no capacity to engage governments on internet-related policy and legislative issues.
The MFWA?s initiative, therefore, comes at a time when many have raised concerns about the increasing attempts by many African governments to adopt new and mostly restrictive internet-related laws, and the growing need for a strong civil society-led advocacy for a much freer and accessible internet.