‘Internet Freedom is a human right;’ say Unions, CSOs campaigning against restrictive internet practices in Africa


By Michael Oche

Trade unions and civil society organisations campaigners from across Africa have asked African leaders to end restrictive practices that limit access to the internet for workers and citizens within the continent.

Our correspondent reports that many citizens across Africa are finding it more difficult by the day to exercise their freedom of expression on the internet either for fear of victimization or for lack of affordability in the case where devices to aid the process are not within the reach of the low income earners.

But participants who spoke at an ongoing 3-day Transnational Consultative and planning meeting on preserving internet Freedom in Sub-Saharan Africa, say internet freedom is a human right, and therefore called for the preservation of such rights through review of restrictive internet legislations and implementation of continental protocols that promote Internet freedom.

“If there’s anybody who understands the power of the internet when it comes to mobilisation, it is the government. And so, there is a clampdown. In many parts of sub-saharan Africa, there is an attempt to slow down the internet or restrict access,” Sonny Ogbuehi, Solidarity Centre Country Programmed Director, for West Africa said at the opening of the planning meeting which kicked off on Friday, September 15, in Abuja.

The 3-day Transnational Consultative and planning meeting which was organized by Solidarity Centre, also commenced the development of a regional advocacy plan to address the restrictive laws and policies against internet freedom in sub-Saharan Africa, prioritizing Nigeria, and Zambia.

Participants drawn from trade unions and Civil Society groups across Africa at the meeting lamented that workers and citizens across Africa have decried shrinking of civic spaces as a result of deliberate policy and regulations that restrict Internet freedom.

In his goodwill message, ITUC-Africa General Secretary, Kwasi Adu-Amankwah emphasized that Africa’s digital future depends on the continued growth and development of the Internet.

The GS who was represented by Guy Hunt, the head of IT at the Lome office of the regional organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation said by supporting developing institutions and people in the area of Internet Governance, we are ensuring that Africa can continue to benefit from the transformative power of the Internet.

In his words: “In ITUC-Africa, we do believe that all citizens, including women, youth and the marginalised must be empowered to be able to participate meaningfully in decision- making and democratic debate and to contribute to the economic, social and political progress of their societies and countries.

“For this to happen, workers need to have the means, skills and opportunities to access, exchange and use information and knowledge. In this regard, we believe that countries should develop robust ICT policies and facilitate the effective deployment of ICTs to strengthen the information and communication environments, which is a prerequisite for functional, participatory democracies.”

The trade unions say challenges of access to the internet in sub-Saharan Africa include; the lack of adequate infrastructure to deliver affordable internet service to all users, restriction of internet services in insecurity prone communities, repressive tendencies on the part of the state through restrictive legislations, vandalisation of telecommunication facilities.

Earlier, Comrade John Odah, the Executive Secretary of Organisation of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA) said the ongoing advocacy on protecting the rights of workers and citizens with respect to unrestricted access to the internet has become even more expedient as we frequently witness repressive measures being taken by authorities to control the use of the internet.

“These actions are gradually shrinking our democratic civic space as citizens and also limiting our capacity to explore and take advantage of the numerous benefits of Information technology for development purposes and to compete effectively in the global space.

“Internet freedom internationally, recognizes freedom of peaceful assembly and of expression and the freedom to seek or impart information and ideas of all kinds regardless of the frontiers. Free internet access ensures that everyone has the ability and opportunity to participate in the digital economy,” he said

According to Comrade Odah “the internet brings all of us together. As trade unions and civil society organizations we can organize, collaborate and share information with our members and other groups efficiently. Hence, the right to organize should not be restricted to our physical space; but even more so in the virtual space.”

Odah cited Article 19 of the International Covenant on civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC)’s General Comment No.34 Article 19 ICCPR which states that no internet restrictions are permissible unless they are provided by law.

Many African countries, including Nigeria are yet to sign the AU Convention on freedom of expression. At the sub-regional level, many west African countries are yet to domesticate the ECOWAS Draft framework on freedom of expression and Right to information.

The meeting brought together Trade Union leaders, CSO representatives, CBTU, and regional trade union bodies representatives, including ITUC-Africa, Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA), East Africa Trade Union Confederation, EATUC, and Southern Africa Coordination Council (SATUCC).