Digital Politics: “Disconnected Citizens Are Kept Away from Opportunities”
sentenced Salma al-ShehabHer Twitter activity led to her sentence of 34 years in prison. It was the longest Saudi sentence ever given to a peaceful activist. Fast forward, and KakwenzaRukirabashaija (an award-winning Ugandan writer) was charged with two offenses counts of “offensive communication”After making unflattering comments about the president and his son via Twitter. It is clear that your well-written 280 characters could land you in jail.
But what if, not only your online expressions could put you behind bars, but that the internet, today’s window to the rest of the world shuts down? There is no internet connection, 100% offline. It is not a sci-fi movie plot gone wrong. This is what is happening right now. Access Now and #KeepItOn, both documented in 2021. at least 182 internet shutdownsIn 34 countries as a tactic for suppressing dissent and quelling unrest
Surveying 7,500+ civil society organizations, which together serve 190 millions people, 95 percent stated that the internet is essential to their ability work. But, 78 per cent said that the lack of internet access, tools or skills limits their ability serve their communities effectively.
Based on the largest survey of civil society about the barriers they face in a digitalizing environment, the data was compiled. was published today in a report by Connect Humanity: “State of Digital Inequity: Civil Society Perspectives on Barriers to Progress in our Digitizing World”.
The survey found that although civil society regards the internet as essential, access to technology is limiting their impact.
What can civil society networks say about digitalisation
To understand some of today’s challenges and solutions when it comes to rights-based digitalisation, we reached out to civil society networks across Africa grappling with this issue.
Technology advances have brought increased surveillance and new risks for civic space – for example, in the Democratic Republic of CongoDuring election periods, access to the internet and text message services was restricted. All of a sudden you couldn’t write a message on WhatsApp, whatever its nature.
“African countries that went to the polls in recent years have developed an affinity to restrict internet access before, during and after elections especially in countries where there are disputes,”Leah Mitaba, Zambia Council for Social Development, explains.
In the midst of unprecedented political instability and legal volatility, Zambia held its 2021 elections. The elections presented enormous risks for voters and political activists as well as civil society organisations working in anti-corruption, environmental rights, and other areas. There are other examples, however: In 2021 alone, governments shut down internet access. ChadNiger, Uganda, Zambia, and Niger ahead of and on the day of national elections.
“We have seen in the last five years, a close link between internet cuts and Chad’s important moments of political dispute,” says Abdoulaye Diarra, Amnesty International’s Central Africa researcher. Chad has experienced over 2.5 years in total of internet cuts or disruptions since 2016 amid increased repression of civil society and human rights activists, including a “bloodshed” in October that killed at least 50 protesters and injured dozens of others.
There are extreme cases of “digital darkness” in the region as well. Authorities have used internet shut downs as a weapon against information control and censorship ever since Tigray, Ethiopia, began in November 2020. November 4, 2022 marks the second year of deliberate internet blackouts that have impacted the lives of six million Tigrayans and indirectly millions more.
“The shutdown is having an immense impact on my life, and I doubt if words can really express it. It felt like my worst nightmare,” says Mulu, a PhD student in Tigray.
Internet Shutdowns and their effects
Felicia Anthonio is the campaign manager for #KeepItOn and a fighter against internet shutdowns with Access Now, “for too long, internet shutdowns have been too easy a decision for governments to make, and too easy an action for them to implement”. It’s almost as if you had a switch you could strategically turn on and off at your will.
Comlan Julien Abbessi, Regional Coordinator of West African NGO Platforms, explained that space restrictions have become more severe for African civil society organisations in the dual context of COVID-19’s pandemic and insecurity affecting African countries. NGOs and associations are being accused of having “hidden agendas” or benefiting from important funds from “occult networks”.
“Some entities or umbrella organisations are considered by the government as counter-powers or related to the opposition because of their legitimate role in alerting, questioning, raising awareness and denouncing abuses and human rights violations”.
Defenders are still subject to intimidation and judicial harassment. They are also arrested for their online activities in Nigeria and Togo, Ethiopia, Togo, Burkina Faso. However, activists and citizens are also rising up to the occasion. More citizens are going to court to challenge government internet policy decisions. Togo is one example. where Togolese citizens and civil society organisations went to courtThey won the case against the government shutdown.
“Disconnected citizens are actually citizens that are kept away from opportunities,”Gbenga Sessean, Paradigm Initiative’s pan-African organization that offers digital opportunities to youth, says it best.
“Both a blessing and a curse”
Virtual Private Networks were created by Nigerians to bypass the government ban against Twitter in 2021. The government had ordered internet providers to block the micro-blogging site, alleging it was being used to undermine “Nigeria’s corporate existence” through the spreading of fake news that could potentially have “violent consequences”. Online opinions could land you behind bars once again.
Fake news and the ongoing sustained criticism of civil society online is also influencing perceptions and promoting polarisation in an already fragile context.
“There are a lot of myths on the work of nonprofits in Nigeria, that need to be dispelled, and the digital space is key to this, and very important for this kind of work,”According to Oyebisi Oluseyi who is the Coordinator at Nigeria Network of NGOs.
In the words of the civil society platform of Cape Verde, PLATONG, digitalisation has been “Both a blessing AND a curse”. Many African civil societies organisations were inspired by the COVID-19 epidemic to embrace virtual platforms to conduct many of their activities.
With the emergence of the pandemic digital tools have turned into “a resilience tool” that allowed confined actors or those with limited movement to continue to function, explains civil society leader Comlan Julien Agbessi. “If they did not exist, they would have had to be invented, otherwise all human activity outside the biological and physiological functions of individuals would have come to a halt.”
The high cost of internet access continues to be a problem. The situation is even worse for rural communities that have limited access due to poor connectivity or unsustainable costs. The potential impact of civil society organizations is limited when those who are served by it do not have internet access. Only 12 percent of respondents in the Connect Humanity survey strongly agreed with the assertion that their communities have access to the internet. Organizations struggle to pay for core technology because of a lack of digital skills. 43% of organizations felt that internet access was too costly, while 64% struggle to pay for computers. 67% said that internet access costs are too high for their communities.
Internet access is a fundamental human right. If we have the same problems, we also have the same solutions.
Communities are developing their own internet infrastructure to connect and protect the unconnected. Decentralised networks – where internet or communication services are localised rather than monopolised by governments or corporate giants – are rising and giving users more control and protection in countries where censorship and internet shutdowns pose an increasing risk of “digital authoritarianism”.
“When we close digital divides, we expand educational opportunities, improve public health, boost economies and create new opportunities for work. We have the knowledge and tools to get this done — now we need governments, investors, and philanthropic funders to do what the corporate sector has been unable to do — work with communities and commit the finances to make digital equity a reality for all,” Chris Worman is the Head of Strategy at Connect Humanity..
During the Covid-19 pandemic, internet access was a lifeline for many — and must today be understood as an essential public good for individuals and for organizations who provide services. This was evident in the survey by Connect HumanityAnd TechSoupAdditional distribution available CIVICUS, FORUS, NTENWINGS, which revealed that 91 percent of respondents believe that internet access is a fundamental human right.
While hearing the promises that the digital spaces would expand rather than limit our rights, we witnessed firsthand how these promises have been distorted. The gap or should we say – the crater – that characterizes those who have access to the digital space and those who don’t, will narrow down over the years, so they say, but this doesn’t mean that our collective rights are going to be upheld. What is access without protection? What is democratic about the digital space if most of the world’s population doesn’t have a say in how it’s being constructed and how it’s going to evolve? Are we building an ally, or our worst enemy? Last but not least, do we feel part or passive in the digital process? Or are we activists who have a target at our back?
IPS UN Bureau