The Freedom of Expression and the Digital Environment in Eastern Africa

In 2015, Kenya accepted a wide range of recommendations including to specifically guarantee freedom of expression, associations, and peaceful assembly of journalists, activists, and participants in demonstrations in both law and practice. However, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is not sufficiently protected in the Kenyan law, and the right is routinely violated by law enforcement authorities responding to protests. The government has also failed to put in place measures to ensure the safety and protection of journalists, bloggers, and others expressing their opinion.

However, the right to freedom has never been protected fully in Kenya and the Article 19 has been at the forefront of working towards a world where all people everywhere can freely express themselves and actively engage in public life without fear of discrimination. They have recently released a report on the same that examines the digital environment across six countries which are: Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Article 19, Eastern Africa’s Regional Director, Mugambi Kiai stated that the internet and digital technologies offer vital opportunities for individuals and communities to share news and information to take part in peaceful protests and engage in key issues that impact their daily lives. He, however, mentioned that over the last year, governments have increasingly undermined people’s rights to free expression, privacy, and access to information, and have criminalized both access to information and dissemination of it which in this case puts their citizens’ health and lives at risk.

The Covid-19 pandemic has not made the situation any easier. Authorities are now using vague and overly broad laws to restrict speech in what they term as a bid to tackle the issues of misinformation and hate speech. For instance, in Tanzania, the Prime Minister threatened to punish anyone spreading false information about the virus and even forced other citizens to report others who shared any unauthorized information. These restrictive laws and/ or policies are being used to intimidate, detain, summon, arrest, charge, or imprison not only the internet and digital technology users but also targeting activists and independent media.

Is the public’s data safe across Eastern Africa?

Governments have enacted or approved data protection laws in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. However, these positive efforts are overshadowed by the unchecked development and use of digital contact tracing applications and robotic technologies without sufficient safeguards.

Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda have developed and deployed some of these technologies to varying degrees. According to the findings by Article 19, here are the ways in which these challenges can be addressed:

  1. Countries should comply with their international, regional, and national freedom of expression and other human rights obligations under international laws and standards.
  2. They should refrain from criminalizing free speech and ensure that domestic legislation, regulations, and policies imposing criminal restrictions on the right to freedom of expression are repealed or amended.
  3. Promote societal resilience to ‘misinformation’, ‘disinformation’, and ‘hate speech’ by developing and implementing nationwide civic education and empowerment programmes alongside multi-stakeholder groups, including CSOs and the media sector.
  4. Proactively promote the public’s Right to Know by regularly publishing comprehensive annual reports on universal access/service funding mechanisms to improve accessibility and affordability of the Internet and digital technologies.
  5. Refrain from adopting and using Covid-19 contact tracing applications without appropriate human rights safeguards, including sunset clauses to strengthen privacy and data protection.
  6. Judiciaries should promote human rights protections in the digital environment by enabling rather than watering down digital anonymity protections.

Article 19 Eastern Africa’s Regional Director, Mugambi Kiai continues to state that poor reporting standards, inadequate information, and lack of transparency by governments in Eastern African countries prevent civil society bodies and the public at large from understanding how funds are used and who benefits from projects. This remains a key challenge in ensuring that the Internet is made accessible and affordable to all.

The Freedom of Expression and Digital Environment in Eastern Africa Report.