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Internet Censorship on the Rise in Africa?

(May 5, 2005) News last week was that Internet giant Yahoo! had been fingered in 
the November 2003 imprisonment of Chinese cyber-dissident Jiang  Lijun, who was sentenced to four years for pro-democracy postings on the internet. The company found itself in the hot seat after Reporters Without Borders published documents it said proved that Yahoo! provided information that led to the jailing. Lijun, 40, was sentenced for “subversion”, accused of seeking to use “violent means” to impose democracy. It is the third time that Yahoo! has been implicated in collaborating with the Chinese authorities in tracking down those who use the internet to express divergent opinions, says the press freedom group.

Not that Yahoo! is alone. Microsoft and Google have also been accused of assisting the Chinese government to enforce their censorship laws. An enormous internet market of 111 million users combined with an official intolerance for opposing views has led the Chinese to develop sophisticated web monitoring and censoring systems. Web sites  and blogs are frequently blocked and internet searchers disrupted.

Compared to China, Africa has a tiny internet market of only 23  million users, or 2-3 percent of the total population. As a result it has been easy for governments to ignore the threat that the internet poses to them in terms of its organizing potential and its ability to act as a vehicle for diverse thoughts and opinions. The reality is that this is changing. Regimes are likely to make greater use of internet censorship techniques and crack down on those who use the internet to express contrary views. Africa already has a poor record of press freedom and locking up of journalists. This record is likely to be duplicated in cyber-space.

It’s no coincidence that Zimbabwe, which relies heavily on China for financial and technical support, has drafted the Interception of Communications Bill 2006, which seeks to empower the authorities to intercept telephone, e-mail and cell phone messages. When the Bill comes into force the government will establish a telecommunications agency called the Monitoring and Interception of Communications 
Centre to monitor mail, according to the Zimbabwe Independent (http:// www.kubatana.net/html/archive/legisl/060324zimind.asp?sector=LEGISL). The Bill will compel operators to install software and hardware to enable them to intercept and store information as directed by the state. The service providers will also be asked to link their message monitoring equipment to the government agency. Failure to comply will 
result in a fine or imprisonment.

While the Zimbabwean government has thus clearly recognised that control of information extends to email and have plans to govern this area, examples of direct internet censorship are already easy to find. In February, the Ugandan government deployed filtering techniques against a Ugandan news radio station's website. This was the first known case of internet censorship in Uganda and came at a time when public debate was crucial - just before presidential and parliamentary elections on 23 February. The blocking was done by local Internet Service Providers, who effectively barred the site’s internet identity number, known as an IP address. This method of censorship meant that 700 other sites hosted by the same server were also blocked, according to tests by Nart Villeneuve, head of research at Toronto University. (http://ice.citizenlab.org/index.php?s=Uganda)

In Ethiopia, where up to 70 journalists are believed to be detained, Ethiopian security forces on January 27 detained Frezer Negash, a correspondent for the US-based Web site Ethiopian Review. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported at the time that Ethiopian officials had cracked down on Negash over her online writings, which were unfavourable to the government. Negash was freed from custody on March 10 after a court ordered her release on bail. (http://www.cpj.org/news/2006/africa/ethiopia30jan06na.html)

But the most sophisticated examples of internet censorship have  emerged from North Africa. The extent of the problem was starkly demonstrated by the actions of the Tunisian government during the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005, when it was made clear that any opinions outside what the Tunisian  government deemed acceptable were not to be tolerated. Online writers have been imprisoned and websites are routinely blocked. According to a Human Rights Watch report, tests conducted in 2005 found that Tunisia censors hundreds of websites. In addition, Human Rights Watch reported that internet users believed the government monitored email and internet traffic. Stiff laws were used to detain online writers for expressing their opinions. In neighbouring Libya, the government has blocked critical web sites based outside the country and hacked a website critical of the government, Human Rights Watch says. Egypt, reports Human Rights Watch, had detained people for their activities online and used the internet to monitor and entrap homosexuals.  (http://hrw.org/reports/2005/mena1105/2.htm#_Toc119125694)

These examples show that some African governments, caught between a  rock and a hard place as liberalization of telecommunications opens up the internet market to more users but at the same time reluctant to let go of state controlled information channels, are beginning to wake up to the threat the internet presents to maintaining the status quo. Crucially, governments are not seeking to shut down the internet  entirely and in many cases have facilitated its growth, but what they are seeking to do is to control the flow of information, in much the same way as traditional media channels have been controlled. This presents dangers in that it fosters an environment of self-censorship where citizens of a country do not feel free to express their opinions online. Internet Service Providers, fearful that they will face the wrath of the law, would rather remove content that may be remotely offensive, thus abrogating censorship to the private sector.This in itself can be profoundly unscientific. As the Ugandan example demonstrates, by taking down a single internet site, 700 additional sites were inadvertently blocked.

If the above examples and trends are anything to go by, as the Internet spreads and new forms of expression such as blogging become more popular, internet censorship is going to increase as governments realize the power of the online medium. Control is likely to involve governments blocking websites they deem undesirable, the arrest and 
persecution of those who use the internet to express critical views and the introduction of laws that allow government to control the internet, given that in many African countries laws governing traditional media and forms of expression may not extend to the internet. Internet censorship is likely to take place with greater vigour in countries that already have poor freedom of expression records. Unless a government has an entrenched respect for human rights that extends to all areas of society, repression is likely to replicate itself in the virtual environment of the internet.

Lastly, an enormous barrier to the benefits of the internet in Africa lies in the fact that so few people have access – and that this is not going to change in the near future, even though growth rates between 2000-2005 were over 400 percent. In this sense, it is the structural inequities of the global economic order that censor tens of millions of people. As a 2003 Privacy International (http://www.privacyinternational.org/article.shtml?cmd[347]=x-347-103801 ) 
report noted:

“Thus, the solution to African Internet censorship lies as much in finding global solutions to these problems, as it is about reinforcing national and regional respect for freedom of expression on the medium of the Internet.”

 Patrick Burnett is online news editor, Pambazuka News  This article first appeared in Pambazuka News

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