Association for Free Research and International Cooperation

Censorship a better ordeal for africa digital space or not

18.03.2020
Article from AFRIC Editorial
The internet and social media, in particular, is uniquely designed to promote freedom of speech and expression significantly. The platform in current times is considered as the most important and powerful place for finding information, sharing opinions, as a mode of communication, most people including government officials have used the platform as a direct communication tool in ways previously unheard of, also the platform serves as a powerhouse for keeping data, and all kinds of information. In other words, the internet and social media never forgets anything and holds all information . Massive changes have been initiated into every sector in Africa through the use of the internet and social media. In leadership, politics and governance, health, business, entertainment, etc. There have been continuous transitions into digital formats and presentation which is present in our everyday lives.

With these transitions, the conversation on censorship and regulation has been a controversial topic. Often than not, Censorship is seen as a tool to subdued the freedom of speech and expression of a group of people as well as a darker agenda used by the Government to hide information from citizens.

In recent times, Africa has witnessed the world’s highest internet penetration growth rates. The digital space has changed the face of communication pattern with social media becoming the preeminent tool creating fertile grounds in the political and governance sphere. They practically now go hand in hand Important announcements, opinions, advice, engagements, etc given by Government officials, politicians are all done on Social media. Goodluck Jonathan in September 2010 then the incumbent President of Nigeria announced his candidacy on Facebook, reaching thousands of people within minutes.

From Barack Obama’s effective use of social media in his 2008 campaign to the consistent use of Donald Trump’s tweets, the fuse and advantages of social media in the political sphere is now endless. Politicians and Government officials get the chance to disseminate important information to a larger audience at a goal, receive feedback instantly and can engage and connect with followers. Citizens also get the opportunity to engage back, express opinions, request accountability, monitor the works and activities of politicians. Pretty much, social media keeps politicians and government on their toes because everyone is watching. This evident advantage of social media is seen through the existence of political debates, online activist groups, through comments and shares, etc. However, the disadvantage of social media in circles of politics, leadership, and governance is huge. 

In the election and its practical discourse, social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, WhatsApp,etc. are the go-to-places for all information. Social media’s negative impact on the political process is often in the form of content which includes fake news, hate speech,  lies, propaganda, rumors, Particularly rumors and fake news, political issues are presently enveloped through stories some genuine others most times fake however they spread quickly over the internet. Fake news has become a growing concern, deploying all social media avenue with an alarming influence.

In 2019, Nigerian presidential incumbent candidate Muhammadu Buhari was declared dead which was fake.  The trend is rampant because publication cost is cheap, the platform is open and receptive, and there are no regulations or quality control. A fake news reportage was realized in 2017 about Kenya’s election. The reportage was made to appear as if it was from BBC Focus on Africa program. The video contained a bogus poll indicating that President Uhuru Kenya will emerge winner in the August elections. This awakened debates, violence, etc amongst people. The BBC came out  with another report urging Kenyans that the story was false and readers should verify every information first before taking action by visiting their website.

In latest news, on the Coronavirus pandemic there has been a lot of fake news flying around about vaccine acquisition,  false and misinformation health tips, false statistics raising fear and panic amongst countries and people, false stories on America President Donald Trump being the cause of the outbreak, an action to wipe away the Chinese populace.  Although, there have been measures put in place, through civil society, research groups, NGOs, PR agencies who often combat fake news with fact-based information. The real question is, are these measures enough?

There have been controversial conversations about whether strict measures are needed amongst them prevalent is Censorship.  It is positioned as being the solution to ending fake news which often causes internal conflict, propaganda, violence, misunderstanding, etc in society.It is believed censorship  adds a measure of security to the lives of citizens, reduce false information and news, placing limits on the right content consumption, help identify precise unlawful activities . Most countries globally are experiencing censorship, some have been successful, others are just strife between Government and citizens These countries include Sudan, Saudia Arabia, North Korea, Eritrea, China, Cuba, Sudan, Vietnam,  Syria, Djibouti, Laos and Iran. African countries including Chad have faced over year censorship, this makes the country the longest social media ban in Africa. The Government cut off access to all social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and messaging apps like WhatsApp,  FB messenger.

According, to the Internet Sans Frontieres, an advocacy group revealed the telecom regulator ordered the mobile service providers to block all access Cameroon also experienced 230-days intensive block covering the entire internet. Censorship in Africa is increasing, especially during elections in Uganda, Congo, Ethiopia, etc. The government is taking absolute control over the internet, this goes to a large extent of suppressing the freedom of journalists and media institutions leading to a restrictive environment. Some countries are facing different types of censorship which includes pervasive censorship, substantial censorship, selective censorship, little or no censorship.

Ethiopia is among countries with the highest censorship in the world. They experience harsh censorship,  imposing restrictions on media institutions and journalists disregarding freedom of expression and speech. This goes as far as detaining two international journalists. In Ethiopia, there are just two options for journalists either prison or self- censorship. This show the extremeness  of the situation with intense suppression or control of what citizens can view, publish or access when they are online

In Sudan, internet speed was slowed down, all direction points to the Government having hands in this stifling and poor connection major online platforms. According to Freedom on the Net 2015, many African countries like Morocco, Angola, Libya, Zambia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Tunisia, and  Malawi are under partly free internet. South Africa and Kenya are the best examples of countries enjoying free internet experience.

Debate rising says censorship is for a greater good, protecting citizens from fake news, reports that are a threat to nation’s security, another school of thought claims it’s a Government designed way to hide information used to work on their evil and greedy agendas. Although false and misleading information reaches billions in seconds, online manipulation, terrorism advocacy, child pornography, hate speech etc is rampant. Censorship looks like the solution to the menace, however, has its dark sides. Censorship allows the Government to control and create agenda setting among citizens, control the flow of news, often violation of rights takes place. The government can create a specific narrative and present it as the truth. Power is then willed to just a few groups of people .

The most critical need of every citizen in a country is freedom of speech and movement. And censorship clearly overrides this basic need. A better option would be the introduction of strict laws and legal framework that bound fake news and other information that threaten a nation and its citizens. Providing laws that make sharing of fake news a crime punishable by prison, measure and provide internet information services that regulate information online through license control. Singapore in recent times passed a bill called The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, regulating all issues on fake news. Similar laws can be passed in Africa.

One of the outstanding elements of democracy is freedom of speech, better alternatives can be developed to curb fake news, online manipulation as well as protecting the freedom of speech of citizens. The digital space; social media particularly is here to stay, it is up to our leaders to make it the best tools for the progress of the state and citizens. Although tough,  a solution must be provided, at the end of the day, they are leaders. And their main responsibility of a leader is to find a solution to a problem; Africa’s problem.

Article from AFRIC Editorial

Photo Credit : google image/illustration

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