Abuse of Cyber Security Laws to Unduly Limit Civic Space
Honourable Chairperson, Honourable Commissioners, State delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
This is a joint statement from the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
We take this opportunity to congratulate the new Chairperson and Vice-Chairperson of the Commission, and wish them all the best as they steer the leadership of the Commission for the next two years.
During the 61st Ordinary Session of the Commission in November 2017, IHRDA expressed concern at the attacks on civic space, particularly the freedom of association in several African States. We wish to convey to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights our continuing concern and alarm at the continued shrinking of civic spaces in many African countries. Many countries in the continent are finding ways to limit the rights to freedom of assembly, association, expression and access to information, guaranteed under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
A growing trend is the use of cyber-security laws to unduly limit freedom of expression and access to information, as guaranteed under the African Charter. In Nigeria, several journalists and civil society activists have been arrested under the Cyber Crimes (Prohibition and Prevention) Act, 2015, for statements that were well within their rights to freedom of expression. Recently, journalist and political activist, Omoyele Sowore was charged with making statements in media interviews that were insulting to the President of Nigeria. Journalist, Jones Abiri, has been in detention for periods of over two years, and charged under the Cyber Crimes (Prohibition and Prevention) Act because of a news report he published in the “Weekly Source” newspaper.
Similar cyber-crimes laws exist, and have been used to silence journalists and activists in Egypt, Kenya, and Zimbabwe.
Several States have also used internet shut-downs to silence citizens’ voices and quell dissent. During the last presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the internet was cut while voters were waiting for election results. The government justified the internet cuts by saying the shutdown was necessary to curb “rumor mongering” among citizens. This was the second time the country’s government decided to block the internet. In January 2018, the state cut the internet in anticipation of planned protests where citizens were requesting President Kabila to vacate his position.
The government of Chad has shut down access to all social media since March 2018. This is the second time the government will resort to this tactic. In 2016, the government shut down access to the internet for eight months. On January 15, 2019 the government of Zimbabwe shutdown social media including, WhatsApp, and eventually completely shut-down internet access in response to growing protests against the rise in fuel prices.
Internet shutdowns have also been employed by governments in Togo, Cameroon, Benin, Gabon and Sudan.
Public Order laws are being used to curtail the rights of persons to freedom of assembly in States such as The Gambia and Sierra Leone among others. These laws contain provisions that necessitate the grant of permission by State agents before protests or demonstrations can take place. Demonstrations that take place without this permission are deemed illegal, and can be dispersed, in most cases, with the use of excessive force. This is in addition to criminal sanctions for those taking part in the protests. In Uganda, the Public Order Management Act 2013 requires prior notification for protests but the government now interprets this as a requirement for prior authorization.
Just this year, in The Gambia, the provisions of the Public Order Act of 1965, have been used to deny many activists of the right to protest, and a number of peaceful protests have been forcefully dispersed with persons taking part in these protests arrested. In Sierra Leone, activists have been arrested and detained for taking part in peaceful protests. Activist, Edmond Abu was arrested and later released last year, while participating in a peaceful protest about an increase in fuel prices.
These incidents are only illustrative of a general trend in many African countries.
We therefore urge the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to
1. Respond to cases of shrinking civic space in Africa, wherever and whenever they happen;
2. Call on African States to respect and protect the rights to expression, access to information, assembly and association for everyone under their jurisdictions.
3. Call on African States to bring their Cyber-crime and Public Order laws in compliance with the provisions of articles 9 and 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
4. Continue to popularize the Commission’s Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa and the Commission’s Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa.