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An uneven balance: Analysis of Internet Censorship in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Swaziland

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This report documents internet-based information control systems, policies and practices in three Southern African nations; Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Swaziland.The document explores implications for the free flow of information and proposals for policy alternatives based on best practices where appropriate.

In this study, information controls is utilized as a broad term to define actions that governments, the private sector, and other actors take through the internet and other information communications technologies to deny (e.g, internet filtering), disrupt (e.g., network shutdowns), monitor (e.g, network surveillance), or secure (e.g., encryption) information for political ends. Information controls can also be non-technical and implemented through legal and regulatory frameworks, including informal pressures placed on private companies.

The individual country reports can either be read separately as ‘stand-alone’ reports or conjunctively in order gain a deep regional comparative perspective. All the reports rely on research questions based on Citizen Lab’s ‘mixed methods’ research approach. In the case of Zimbabwe, we further relied on the framework by Deibert and Rohinski which classifies information controls into first, second and third generations ; while in Zambia’s case, we relied on the criteria set out in what is commonly known as the APC-LA RUE Framework for Assessing Freedom of Expression and Related Rights on the Internet (APC-LA RUE Framework). In respect to Swaziland, the report classifies content controls in accordance with the criteria set out in the 2011 report of the former Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue.

Zimbabwe

Network measurements undertook did not seem to reveal any strong evidence of censorship happening on any content during the testing period. This does not mean that censorship is not happening at all inside of Zimbabwe, but only that from the specific vantage point from which we ran measurements on a set of specific URLs we could not find signs of internet censorship occurring. The internet remains accessible and relatively free. While connectivity may be poor and unreliable, and suffer from the usual rent-seeking distortions found in other developing country environments, the same basic content is available there as in the most open-country contexts.

However, the fact that Zimbabweans can access most of the internet is by no means an indication that there are no state-sponsored internet information controls. Rather they are different and largely assume other forms such as those in the second and third generation of internet information controls. Through reliance on public order laws such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook are monitored for content that is critical of the president, the police, and the army. Legitimate expression online is therefore criminalized, which leads to an environment of self-censorship.

Information controls in Zimbabwe present a mixed picture, influenced by a number of factors, mainly the government’s determination to entrench political domination. “Government is very conscious of security particularly where it relates to political power, political influence, undermining the state and state authorities” . Through a reliance on third-generation controls, the Zimbabwean government relies on a highly sophisticated, multidimensional approach to enhancing state control over national cyberspace. It concentrates on building capabilities for competing in informational space with potential adversaries and competitors. The focus is less on denying access than successfully competing with potential threats through effective counter-information campaigns that overwhelm, discredit, or demoralize opponents. It is also actively using surveillance and data-mining as means to confuse and entrap opponents. The state is enhancing jurisdiction over national cyberspace and expanding the powers of state surveillance. These include warrantless monitoring of internet users and usage.

Zambia

In recent years, Zambia witnessed an increased reliance on both second and third generation internet controls, driven by diverse motives. Under the second-generation controls, both administrations of Presidents Sata and Lungu legalized content controls through the enforcement of the existent public order, secrecy, and morality laws. This includes, for example, anti-pornography, slander, and defamation across the online environment in an uneven and partial manner. The country also faced connectivity problems due to poor internet resources infrastructure. Although the country continued to block and filter “offensive” websites during the period under review, the picture changed in the period leading up to and including the 2016 elections. Out of a total of 1,303 websites tested for censorship in Zambia during and following its 2016 general election period, only 10 of those sites presented signs of DNS, TCP/IP and HTTP interference. Previously blocked news outlets appeared to be accessible throughout the duration of the testing period. However no blocked pages detected as part of this study could confirm cases of censorship. The findings illustrate that connections to the websites of the World Economic Forum, the Organization of American States (OAS), and an online-dating site (pof.com) failed consistently from Zambia’s MTN network across the testing period, while failure rates from control vantage points were below 1%, indicating these sites might have been blocked.

Pornography and sites supporting LGBT dating also appeared to be inaccessible throughout the testing period and such blocking can potentially be legally justified under Zambia’s Penal Code and Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 2009. However, it remains unclear why connections to other websites, such as Pinterest, may have been tampered with during Zambia’s 2016 general elections. The network tests run in Zambia aimed at identifying “middle boxes” capable of performing internet censorship did not reveal the presence of censorship equipment. However, this does not mean that censorship equipment is not present in the country, just that these particular tests were not able to highlight its presence.

The results from the technical measurements appear to confirm views from some of our interviewees that the government had realised the futility of mass blockades, but instead chose to resort to a number of third generation controls in the run up tothe 2016 presidential elections: first, it created an environment that promoted mass blogging- the intent of such information revolution or campaigns is to effect cognitive change rather than to completely deny access to online information or services. Government also delayed the passage of an access to information law, thus creating an environment where it can either allow or deny access to information at whim. On a positive note, the current and previous governments supported Internet Government Forums and actively take part in them.

Nevertheless, government is not consistently taking steps to protect human rights online. For example, there are specific restrictions on online content, which include the criminalization of legitimate expression, including that of defamation. Such criminalization contributes to an environment of self-censorship. Second, although the law does not impose intermediary liability on ISPs, Zambia does not have a framework that provides detailed guidance on the issue, thereby leaving the door open for future governments to impose such liability. Third, Zambia, like most African countries, lacks laws that adequately protect the right to privacy, treatment of private data, and facilitation of access to information.

Swaziland

Despite being a small, predominantly rural country with a proportionately small population, Swaziland severely lacks proper communication facilities, including the internet. The internet facilities are very poor and the population doesn’t enjoy much internet coverage. Since the internet is not firmly established in Swaziland, there isn’t a well-developed internet governance framework in the country. Despite the fact that internet in Swaziland dates back to early 1995, cyber security awareness is a new phenomenon and there is little discourse on it so far, save for such basics as digital security training. The Swaziland government, mostly through ISPs, disrupts and disconnects network infrastructure for political and partisan reasons. There are recorded cases of “just on time” denial of service, especially to disrupt trade union activities that may expose the monarch to international censure. There have also been incidents of internet blocking and filtering, especially those of the political opposition and trade unions.

Further, the Swazi government criminalises and attributes political meaning to online speech. Government officials announced plans to censor any information shared on the internet via social media platforms. If passed, the law will ban Facebook and Twitter users from criticising its autocratic ruler, King Mswati III. Also, the Swaziland Constitution does not grant absolute rights for freedom of expression. The freedoms are limited by broad interpretations of statutes that restrict expression in the interest of public order and safety, national security, morality, and health. For instance, the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA) 2008 are used by officials to suppress freedom of expression on the internet and induce an environment of self-censorship. The political environment in Swaziland, presided over by an absolute monarch and characterised by culture of deference and fear, contributes to a culture of self-censorship. It is because of this environment that not much is known or written on Swaziland.

Overall, while there are unconfirmed reports that numerous African countries are increasing their first-generation technical capabilities, it appears second- and third-generation controls are increasing. These cannot be detected through technical network measurements, but require detailed local political economy knowledge. Future information controls research should increasingly combine technical data and in-country political economy context. Technical partners such as OONI would contribute technical capacity while local partners in repressive environments assist in deploying probes and country context analysis. This first step should be just that: a first step with many more to come. Otherwise, Africa will remain unknown in terms of true internet freedom and the danger of virtual censorship.

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Africa

Africa becomes area of global competition

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The widespread view of Africa as one huge problem point on the planet’s body characterized by pandemics, hunger, poverty and wars – the so-called “Afropessimism” – has now been replaced with an approach which was launched  by global powers as they compete for economic and political presence on the continent. After a lull, Russia has joined the race as well.

According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, “African states are steadily gaining political and economic weight, asserting themselves as major pillars of the global multi-polar system and enjoying ever more say in making decisions on the most critical issues of the regional and global agenda.” Significantly, Africa accounts for about one third of the votes in the UN.

After Russia made an impressive “comeback” in the Middle East, Moscow became attractive for states seeking alternatives to the old political and economic ties. The first African country to do that was the war-torn Central African Republic, and the next to follow was Sudan, a country facing a similar challenge. Then more countries did the same. At present, more than 30 African countries have reached agreements with Russia which envisage the development of geo-resources, the supply of produce of the military-industrial complex, and the training of army personnel and law enforcement forces. Among the most significant contractors are Algeria, Egypt, Angola, Uganda and Nigeria.

The consistent and rarely publicized efforts of the Russian diplomacy resulted in the first Russia-Africa summit, which was held in Sochi on October 23-24. The day earlier, the Russian-African Economic Forum opened in Sochi too. Of the 62 African legal entities officially recognized by the UN, the Russian forum was attended by heads of state of 43 countries while another 11 participated at minister and ambassador level. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi represented both Egypt and the African Union.

During the Sochi forum, Russia and African countries signed more than 500 agreements worth about 800 billion rubles. Considering the low solvency of African partners, the participants came to agreement to set up a $ 5 billion trade support fund. The success of the forum prompted the decision to hold it regularly, every two years.

China seems to be Russia’s top economic competitor on the Black Continent. Beijing offers African countries big but easy loans and builds social infrastructure facilities on a gratuitous basis. China attaches great importance to “soft power” by promoting cultural and scientific contacts in an attempt to form loyal national elites. Every year thousands of Africans are granted scholarships to study at Chinese universities. As a result, ten years ago, China snatched from the United States its leadership as Africa’s trade and economic partner thereby becoming one of the major investors and donors to African countries.

Since the beginning of the century, the China-Africa Cooperation Forum has been held regularly, with nearly four dozen African countries joining the One Belt One Road mega-project.

And finally, (as investments have to be protected) in 2017, a Chinese military base appeared in Djibouti, the first beyond the bounds of the PRC.

Simultaneously, Africa’s growing dependence on Chinese financing may become one of Russia’s competitive advantages as the continent starts to look for alternative partners.

The United States has unintentionally been contributing to this, by criticizing the policies of Moscow and Beijing in Africa. Washington has become seriously concerned with measures to repulse the “expansion” of China and Russia. In December 2018, the Trump administration presented a new strategy for Africa, or in fact, a plan to counteract the activity of Russia and China on the continent. There have been numerous official statements to this effect. “These countries are expanding their financial and political influence to Africa by applying “aggressive” practices and acting for their own benefit, which poses a threat to US national security,” – the then adviser to the American president, John Bolton, said, as he unveiled the program. It turns out that the United States is acting in Africa to the detriment of its own interests?

China bore the brunt of criticism. Bolton, as usual, lashed at Beijing for many things, but above all, for using loans to enslave the Black Continent. Last summer, during the US-Africa business summit in Maputo, the United States launched the Prosperous Africa Economic Program. The Program’s ultimate goal is the same – to contain the growing influence of Russia and China by expanding trade with  countries of the continent, by promoting American technology and by boosting  assistance in the anti-terrorism campaign. According to Bolton, the new approaches will allow African countries “to remain independent in reality, not in theory”. But for the rhetoric, there is little new in the American approach.

Europe boasts traditionally strong positions on the African continent. After they gained independence, the authorities in many former French colonies’ capitals installed monuments to Charles de Gaulle. African countries are interested in cooperating with the European Union in three interrelated areas: peacekeeping, which is so critical for the Black Continent, receiving economic and humanitarian aid, and assistance in the anti-epidemic effort.

In turn, the EU is more set on measures to thwart illegal migration from the African continent, which is its top priority for now. Simultaneously, the EU is trying to be realistic about the economic and political potential of African partners. As far back as in April 2000, Cairo hosted the first EU-Africa summit, attended by heads of state and government. Seven years later, the Strategic Partnership Agreement for Trade and Democracy was signed in Lisbon, designed to boost economic and political ties and calling for “genuine cooperation” and partner equality.

Nevertheless, the number of Europeans present on the continent has been dwindling. Even the French who until recently affected the political situation in Francophone Africa have become fewer in number. According to the authoritative French weekly Le Point, Paris “is losing ground here,” and should thus “come to its senses”, as its influence and economic weight on the continent are steadily declining.

Incidentally, Ankara embarked on cooperation with the continent years ago. The first summit on Turkey’s cooperation with African countries (mainly Muslim) was held in 2008. This year the third summit took place. Since 2010, the government has been following the so-called “African Strategy.” The Turkish Foreign Ministry has proudly reported on its website that the two parties have been demonstrating mutual interest in bilateral ties, which becomes clear from the following figures: while in 2009 there were only 12 Turkish representative missions on the Black Continent, today their number totals 39. And African countries have increased the number of their diplomatic missions in Ankara threefold – from 10 to 33 – over the same period.

Speaking of the prospects for cooperation between Russia and Africa, we can say first of all that Russia is one of the top ten exporters of food products to African markets. Secondly, Moscow is one of the major suppliers of military produce to the continent – the value of military contracts in 2019 is expected to exceed $ 4 billion. Thirdly, local consumers are quite satisfied with the price-quality ratio of many Russian-made products. And the contractors can pay for these goods: Africa accounts for up to one third of the developed mineral reserves, and given that surveys were not always carried out at the appropriate level and did not cover all resources-rich areas, there are more. So, the fourth area of Russia-Africa cooperation is geological prospecting work.

Addressing the Sochi forum, President Putin made it clear to African guests that Russia had no intention to repeat the mistakes of the USSR, which was determined to multiply the number of political pseudo-allies at the expense of economic feasibility. The United States and the EU have also reiterated the mutually beneficial nature of trade and economic relations. Moreover, all actors regularly write off Africa’s debts, and Moscow is no exception.

And finally, it is necessary to point out that Western countries invariably make this cooperation conditional on the “right”, from their point of view,  foreign and domestic policies of their contractors. Russia has a clear edge here as it does not seek to force its opinion on anyone, be it Europe or the African continent. 

From our partner International Affairs

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Moscow’s Institute for African Studies Marks its 60th Year

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded 60 years ago, precisely in 1959. Since then it has undergone various changes and carried out huge scientific research on Africa.

Professor Dmitri Bondarenko, the deputy director, discusses some aspects of its most current achievements, challenges and the future. Here are excerpts from the interview conducted by Kester Kenn Klomegah:

 Institute for African Studies marks its 60th year. Can we look at its performance, at least, during the past five years? What are the landmarked activities during the past half a decade?

The 60th anniversary is a good reason for looking both back at the results to date and ahead. If I could speak further about the achievements of the most recent years, I would mention first and formost, we try our best to organize fieldwork in Africa, although we are limited in our possibilities rather rigidly.

The landmark activities during the last five years in the academic sphere are as follows: the 13th and 14th conferences of Africanists (2014, 2017) – this is the Institute’s “brand conference”. Every time, it brings together about 500 participants from all over the world, including many African countries. The next, 15th, conference will take place in May 2020; 48 panels with about 10 presentations in each are included into its preliminary program.

In the last five years, several important conferences were organized together with foreign partners – from Slovenia, Portugal and, what is especially important, from Tanzania. The conference took place in Dar es Salaam in March 2019 and brought together scholars from 13 states. The next conference in Tanzania is scheduled for November 2020.

Several dozen books have been published in the last five years, among probably the most important of which are: Federalism in Africa: Problems and Prospects (in Russian and English), edited by Igho O. Natufe and Khristina M. Turyinskaya (2015), Tropical Africa: Evolution of Political Leadership (in Russian) by Tatiana S. Denisova (2016), Islam, Global Governance and the New World Order (in Russian) by Leonid L. Fituni and Irina O. Abramova (2018).

Assess the importance of its research, in form of consultancy, for government institutions and private both in Russia and Africa?

This importance is definitely growing, especially in the most recent years. State institutions and business companies seek the Institute’s consultancy services more and more often nowadays. In particular, the Institute played an important role in the preparation of the Russia-Africa summit in October 2019.

As we are a research institution, my firm belief is that just academic research should be our primary task. The situation has been changing during the last few years. Today the importance of Africa for Russia in different respects, including political and economic, is recognized by the state, and the Russian Foreign Ministry and other state institutions dealing with the Russian-African relations in various spheres, not just purely political, ask us for our expert advice on different points quite often.

What are the current challenges and hindrances to research Africa these years? Do you have any suggestions here on how to improvement the situation?

The situation now is much better for African studies than for a long time before. In particular, today there are much more opportunities for doing fieldwork in Africa. Russian Africanists and their work are becoming better known in the global Africanist community. Quite a lot of junior researchers join the academy nowadays. In my assessment, African studies in Russia are on the right road.

The challenges our African Studies are facing now are the same as the whole Russian Academy are facing, and they are mainly related to the bureaucratic pressure on research institutions.

How about academic cooperation with similar institutions inside Africa? Do you exchange researchers and share reports with African colleagues?

At the moment, the Institute has Agreements on Cooperation or Memorandums of Understanding with 18 universities and research institutes from 12 African states and currently there are negotiations with two more institutions from one more country.

As noted above, many African scholars come to our conferences, and we had and will have jointly organized conferences with particularly Tanzanian partners. Our partners help organize the Institute researchers’ fieldwork in their countries the outcome of which, besides other points, are joint publications (for example, with our colleagues from Tanzania and Zambia).

It is important to say that African colleagues regularly publish their articles in “The Journal of the Institute for African Studies”. We also have book exchange programs with some of our African partners. However, we do not have well-established exchange of researchers with our African partners, especially because of financial difficulties from both sides.

Besides, I must say that not all African partners, even those with whom we have official Memorandums of Understanding or Agreements on Cooperation, are really active in supporting ties with us, some of them do not initiate any joint projects and remain passive when we propose something. Nevertheless, we do have good and diversified ties with many African partners.

And the future vision for the IAS? How would you like the IAS transform, or say, diversify its activities especially now the Kremlin prioritizes Africa?

As I see it, the Institute’s forseeable future will be based on two main developments. On the one hand, it will more and more become a “think tank” for the state and business, and most probably, this development will dominate.

On the other hand, I hope the Institute will remain as a research institution where fundamental studies into different aspects of African and African diaspora’s past and present are done. The Institute for African Studies has the potential and capacity for combining both trends at a high level and far into the future.

As it becomes clearer from the discussion, I see the prospects for the Institute’s further development, in attracting more young researchers with their energy and new visions and approaches, in extending fieldwork in Africa, and in broadening international cooperation with Africanists worldwide.

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Africa

We Should Exempt Africa from the Russia–UK Geopolitical Confrontation

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Today neither Russia nor the United Kingdom can claim a leadership role in Africa. London reached the peak of its influence here between World War I and World War II, when the British Empire had a larger part of the continent under its direct control. Moscow’s heyday in Africa goes back to the 1960s – 1970s, with the Soviet Union having played the role of the main overseas supporter of various national liberation movements. The odds are that in the XXI Century African countries’ destinies will depend more on the logic of the emerging US – China global competition than on any decisions taken in the Kremlin or at Downing Street, 10.

Moreover, today both Russia and the UK have limited economic, political and strategic interests in Africa, compared to some other parts of the world — e.g. Europe or the Middle East. Arguably, this is the main reason why Africa does not look as toxic for Russia–UK relations as some other regions do. However, we cannot rule out potential clashes between the two powers in various present or future crises and conflicts in Africa. We should avoid underestimating the likely benefits of Russia–UK cooperation, even if it remains quite limited.

Many current trends suggest the role of Africa in the international system will continue to grow over time — both in terms of global challenges that the continent is likely to generate and in terms of global opportunities that it is going to offer. If everybody’s attention seems to be focused on the Middle East today, tomorrow it might well shift to Africa. Russian and UK stakes on the continent are likely to grow, while the price of an uncontrolled confrontation is expected to increase.

Moscow and London have to start working on how to contain risks and cut costs of this confrontation. Ideally — on how to exempt Africa from their geopolitical confrontation altogether. The first important step might be to try to agree on an appropriate ‘code of conduct’ on the continent, which could be applied not only to Russia and the United Kingdom, but also to external players in general. Africa may well be an ideal place to test new ideas about such controversial notions as responsibility to protect, failed state, hybrid war or regime change. London and Moscow are more likely to reach an agreement on many African crises than on more sensitive matters like Ukraine or Syria. At the same time, with an understanding on ‘rules of engagement’ in Africa in hand, it would be easier to approach highly divisive cases in Europe or in the Middle East.

Another area for potential Russia–UK collaboration or, at least, for coordination in Africa could be the area of ‘African commons’. The continent is in desperate need of essential public goods, the demand for them is huge and our two nations could do better avoiding old-fashioned competition and increasing the efficiency of their respective assistance projects in Africa. Take, for instance, the domain of general and higher education and human capital development in Africa, where both the UK and Russia have considerable experience and overlapping comparative advantages. Another area for potential cooperation is public health, which will require substantial investment, as well as personnel training and emergency management. Joint projects in infrastructure development, including private-public partnerships, constitute yet another opportunity.

In the security domain, Russia and the United Kingdom could explore options for more intense interaction in fighting international terrorism coming from Africa or targeting African countries. At the same time, Moscow and London could consider enhancing their respective roles in the UN led peacekeeping operations in Africa and demonstrating more appetite for consorted votes within the UN Security Council. They can work together in fighting piracy in the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Guinea, and so on.

It is evident that any Russia–UK interaction in Africa or about Africa cannot and will not be completely separated from the rest of their bilateral relations. If we fail to settle the core problems dividing Moscow and London today, this divisive agenda will continue to limit opportunities for cooperation in Africa as well. However, the Africa of today and especially the Africa of tomorrow will be too important for the world at large to approach it only as an extension of the ongoing Russia–UK confrontation. It is one of the most apparent cases, in which an exemption would not be a manifestation of weakness or cynicism, but rather a demonstration of political wisdom and a strategic foresight.

From our partner RIAC

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