When the coronavirus pandemic hit Africa, governments across the continent took swift actions to curb the spread of the coronavirus — enacting states of emergency, curfews and lockdowns, among other measures.
During this time, some governments exploited the pandemic to further clamp down on digital rights and dissenting voices. Other governments attempted to control COVID-19 narratives in their favor, obscuring or amplifying certain facts to benefit their own reputations.
In Ethiopia, for example, the government activated its hate speech law to crack down on online free speech. In Tanzania, the government fired health officials for contested COVID-19 data and tightened internet-usage laws to prohibit citizens from publishing any unofficial pandemic content. In Nigeria, a surge of contact-tracing apps emerged against the backdrop of an increasingly powerful surveillance state. In Mozambique, the government prohibited journalists from releasing any unofficial information about COVID-19 and enacted a state of emergency with vague laws to protect citizens’ privacy.
“Digital Rights Under Lockdown,” invited nine reporters from nine different countries to research, document and explore the state of digital rights during the pandemic: Algeria, Tunisia, Nigeria, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Ethiopia.
The stories highlight digital rights violations during the pandemic period beginning in January 2020; explore potential manipulation of the coronavirus narrative by African governments; and explore how government “states of emergency” decrees were used to further clamp down on digital rights.
This project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).
As Hirak protests continue to protest unmet public demands, the Algerian government uses the pandemic to restrain independent media platforms and people’s digital rights through suppressive laws.
A number of Ethiopian activists were arrested in 2020 for violating the country’s COVID-19 restrictions, raising questions on whether the government has used those protocols to silence criticism.
Under an extended state of emergency in Mozambique, several new digital platforms emerged to disseminate COVID-19 information. But these initiatives lack clarity in terms of data privacy and personal security.
Namibia’s tech-driven effort to bring more Namibians online during the pandemic seems brilliant. But most of Namibia’s historically marginalized native populations have been excluded.
In Nigeria, the government decided to use contact-tracing measures to track those who come into contact with an infected person. On the surface, this might appear as harmless and noble. But Nigeria’s history of surveillance raises serious questions about how the state may further its capabilities to track and target citizens during the pandemic using such technologies.
While COVID-19 was reported in Tanzania as early as March 2020, in June 2020 the Tanzanian government officially declared itself to be a “coronavirus-free” state. Since then, the government has been silent on the coronavirus with a strong policy of denial and no data released to the public on infections or deaths.
In Tunisia, local authorities have, throughout the pandemic, resorted to historical tricks by using vague, existing laws to curb freedom of expression and limit citizens’ rights to information.
In Uganda, increased criminalization of misinformation during the pandemic infringed on citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information, especially targeting journalists and human rights activists.
COVID-19 and its subsequent government policies have had far-reaching implications on digital rights and media freedom in Zimbabwe.
Full stories list:
Stories about Digital rights under lockdown: Government control of the COVID-19 narrative in Africa from March, 2021
The state of emergency restrictions were used as grounds to arrest a lawyer and a journalist last year -- both known critics of the government in Addis Ababa.