Are you free online?

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Photo:Forum poster.Credits:CIPESA

Despite the potential of social media and Internet in general to promote good governance in Africa, there is still a long way to go as many governments are increasingly stifling citizens’ digital rights.

The just concluded Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa  held in Kampala, Uganda was a great opportunity for human rights defenders, governments and other concerned citizens to exchange ideas and look at ways to deal with rising threats to online freedom.

From different panels I followed and my interactions with participants; I learned that Internet shutdowns, online violence against women, surveillance, and lack of digital security are some key factors that hinder Internet rights.

Internet Shutdown has become a strategy that is used by many governments on the continent to silence critics during protests or elections.

While security concerns raised by authorities may be valid, many political leaders use it as an excuse to deny citizens their rights to access information, and promote their narrative which is often propaganda.
I personally, I have never experienced Internet shutdown but a testimony by Arsene Tungali who has experience in Internet governance and human rights issues in The Democratic Republic of Congo was disturbing.

“Imagine waking up you find you don’t have access to any social network platforms, whatsapp,sms and Internet,” he said at one of the panels.

However, there are other sides of the Internet shut down issue. It looks like every one suffers when Internet is shutdown.

Governments make losses as many ICT enabled services such as e-health relies on Internet, big or small companies also count losses.

But a new aspect was the fact that politicians, opposition and ordinary citizens suffer during shutdowns which often happens at key political moments.

For instance in Uganda both supporters of ruling party ,opposition and common citizens suffered as they all use mobile money for many transactions nowadays.
Violence against women is also on the rise in the digital era. The panel about the issue was enriching.

It seems some Internet users commit online violence unknowingly or knowingly.
“As a woman, what would your first reaction to cyber violence be? Reply for reasons if you can? ” read one tweet short survey

I was shocked by a video mentioned by one of the panelist. It was about a man beating a woman which was trending on Internet.

“Silence is acceptance. When you see a woman being abused online, jump in,”, read another tweet on the issue.

Going forward, there is still a lot to be done in the fight for Internet freedom as 2016 Internet Freedom in Africa report highlights many tactics that are used by governments to control information online.
Civil society, media must keep on pushing for digital rights; while governments should listen because it is in the country’s interests when citizens are free to access information online and to voice their frustration.

As a result, democracy grows and businesses that are increasingly depending on Internet flourish.

Everyone knows that telecom companies, ISPs play a big part in many African economies.
To end I would wish more government involvement in next forums on Internet freedom to understand citizens voices on the matter and contribute to a balanced debate.

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