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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

Money seized from Equatorial Guinea VP Goes into Vaccine

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As a classic precedence, the Justice Department of the United States has decided that $26.6m (£20m) seized from Equatorial Guinea’s Vice-President Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue be used on purchasing COVID-19 vaccines and other essential medical programmes in Equitorial Guinea, located on the west coast of central Africa.

“Wherever possible, kleptocrats will not be allowed to retain the benefits of corruption,” an official said in a statement, and reported by British Broadcasting Corporation.

Obiang was forced to sell a mansion in Malibu, California, a Ferrari and various Michael Jackson memorabilia as part of a settlement he reached with the US authorities in 2014 after being accused of corruption and money-laundering. He denied the charges.

The agreement stated that $10.3m of the money from the sale would be forfeited to the US and the rest would be distributed to a charity or other organisation for the benefit of the people of Equatorial Guinea, the Justice Department said.

The UN is to receive $19.25m to purchase and administer COVID-19 vaccines to at least 600,000 people in Equatorial Guinea, while a US-based charity is to get $6.35m for other medical programmes in Equatorial Guinea.

Teodorin Nguema has been working in position as Vice-President since 2012, before that he held numerous government positions, including Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. Known for his unquestionable lavish lifestyle, he has been the subject of a number of international criminal charges and sanctions for alleged embezzlement and corruption. He has a fleet of branded cars and a number of houses, and two houses alone in South Africa,

Teodorin Nguema has often drawn criticisms in the international media for lavish spending, while majority of the estimated 1.5 million population wallows in abject poverty. Subsistence farming predominates, with shabby infrastructure in the country. Equatorial Guinea consists of two parts, an insular and a mainland region. Equatorial Guinea is the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

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African Union’s Inaction on Ethiopia Deplorable – Open Letter

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The crisis in northern Ethiopia has resulted in millions of people in need of emergency assistance and protection. © UNICEF/Christine Nesbitt

A group of African intellectuals says in an open letter that it is appalled and dismayed by the steadily deteriorating situation in Ethiopia. The letter, signed by 58 people, says the African Union’s lack of effective engagement in the crisis is deplorable. The letter calls on regional bloc IGAD and the AU to “proactively take up their mandates with respect to providing mediation for the protagonists to this conflict”.

The letter also asks for “all possible political support” for the AU’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, whose appointment was announced on August 26, 2021. A United Nations Security Council meeting on the same day welcomed the former Nigerian president’s appointment.

Earlier in August 2021, UN  chief Antonio Guterres appealed for a ceasefire, unrestricted aid access and an Ethiopian-led political dialogue. He told the council these steps were essential to preserve Ethiopia’s unity and the stability of the region and to ease the humanitarian crisis. He said that he had been in close contact with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and had received a letter from the leader of the Tigray region in response to his appeal. “The UN is ready to work together with the African Union and other key partners to support such a dialogue,” he said.

August 26, 2021 was only the second time during the conflict that the council held a public meeting to discuss the situation. Britain, Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway and the United States requested the session.

Fighting between the national government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front broke out in November 2020, leaving millions facing emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity, according to the United Nations. Both sides have been accused of atrocities.

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More African Countries Register Russia’s Sputnik Vaccine

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Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) is a specialized technical institution of the African Union (AU) that strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions as well as partnerships to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.

During the outbreak of the coronavirus, the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), was established by African Union, as a component in support of the Africa Vaccine Strategy and was endorsed by the AU Bureau of Heads of State and Government on 20th of August 2020.

Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), has emphasized: “Africa has to team up with development partners to achieve its 60% continent-wide vaccination in the next two years. I think that is why we should as a collective of the continent, and of course, in partnership with the developed world make sure that Africa has a timely access to vaccines to meet our vaccination targets.”

An official media release in February 2021, the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team from the African Union (AU) informed that Russia would supply and deliver 300 million Sputnik V vaccines to Africa. That step was intended to support African countries to attain their targeted immunization of 60% of the population by the year-end. That vaccine story disappeared, but instead what become so common is the speedy registration of Sputnik V on bilateral basis in various African countries.

According to the latest, Nigeria has become the 68th country in the world to approve the Russian vaccine. The use of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine has been approved in Nigeria, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) said in an official statement.

“The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund) announces the approval of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine against coronavirus by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control of Nigeria (NAFDAC). Nigeria has become the 68th country in the world to approve the Russian vaccine. Total population of all countries, where Sputnik V is approved for use, now exceeds 3.7 billion people, which is nearly half of the global population,” the statement said.

“Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, and the approval of Sputnik V will provide for using one of the safest and most effective vaccines in the world. Sputnik V is based on a proven human adenoviral vectors platform and is successfully used in over 50 countries. Approval in Nigeria will make an important contribution to the country’s fight against the pandemic,” CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriev said.

Besides Nigeria, other African countries have registered Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Reportedly, the vaccine has been registered in Algeria, Angola, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Tunisia, the Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zimbabwe.

Russia’s drive to share Sputnik V vaccine, of course, offers a chance to raise its image and strengthen alliances in Africa. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation has made efforts promoting the vaccine using all its channels. But supply and delivery have largely lagged behind, the pledges have simply not been fulfilled. Russian authorities have oftentimes said that they would step up efforts for fruitful cooperation in combating coronavirus in Africa.

Promising more than can be delivered appears to be a universal problem with coronavirus vaccines, and it is a real risk for Russia as well, said Theresa Fallon, Director of the Brussels-based Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies. “They have won the gold medal for creating this very effective vaccine,” she said. “But the problem is how are they going to implement production and delivery?”

Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), with profit motivation, has attempted supplying the Russian vaccines through, Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, from the Monarch family and a third party in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to a number of African countries. For instance, the Republic of Ghana reportedly signed US$64.6 million contract for Sputnik V vaccine from Russia through Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum. It was double the price from the producer as reported in the media.

On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin has noted, in a speech early September, that advanced countries that produce vaccines against the coronavirus do little to protect humanity from the pandemic.

“The benefits of vaccination are enjoyed mostly by advanced economies. The bulk of the vaccines is made there, and it is used to protect their own population. But very little is being done to protect humanity in the broad sense,” Putin said at the plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, the Far East of Russia. “This is very bad for the producers, because all this boomerangs around the globe. For instance, in Africa the level of protection with vaccines is minimal, but contacts with the African countries continue. There is no getting away from this. This infection will return again and again.”

According to an official release obtained late February, the Sputnik V vaccine the following advantages:

• Efficacy of Sputnik V is 91.6% as confirmed by the data published in the Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and most respected medical journals; It is one of only three vaccines in the world with efficacy of over 90%; Sputnik V provides full protection against severe cases of COVID-19. 

• The Sputnik V vaccine is based on a proven and well-studied platform of human adenoviral vectors, which cause the common cold and have been around for thousands of years. 

• Sputnik V uses two different vectors for the two shots in a course of vaccination, providing immunity with a longer duration than vaccines using the same delivery mechanism for both shots. 

• The safety, efficacy and lack of negative long-term effects of adenoviral vaccines have been proven by more than 250 clinical studies over two decades. 

• The developers of the Sputnik V vaccine are working collaboratively with AstraZeneca on a joint clinical trial to improve the efficacy of AstraZeneca vaccine. 

• There are no strong allergies caused by Sputnik V. 

• The price of Sputnik V is less than $10 per shot, making it affordable around the world. 

In February, peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet published an analysis from Phase III clinical trial of the Russian vaccine, showing its 91.6-percent efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19. The Sputnik V vaccine was developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology.

Sputnik V was registered in Russia on August 11, 2020 as the world’s first officially registered coronavirus vaccine. Russian vaccines have advantages as no deaths have been reported after vaccination with the Sputnik V, Alexander Gintsburg, Director of the Gamaleya Center, the vaccine developer, said and was reported by TASS News Agency. “As of today, no deaths after vaccination with Sputnik V have been registered,” he said.

Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) is Russia’s sovereign wealth fund established in 2011 to make equity co-investments, primarily in Russia, alongside reputable international financial and strategic investors. RDIF acts as a catalyst for direct investment in the Russian economy. RDIF’s management is based in Moscow.

In Africa, during first of September, the coronavirus-related death toll has topped 196,190, while more than 6.9 million recoveries have been reported. South Africa accounts for a majority of coronavirus cases and deaths across Africa – 2,777,659 and 82,261 respectively. The death toll in Tunisia climbed to 23,451, and 664,034 cases have been confirmed. Egypt recorded 16,736 deaths and 288,441 coronavirus cases.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia is ranked second to South Africa (308,134 cases and 4,675 deaths) and is followed by Kenya (235,863 cases and 4,726 deaths) and Nigeria (191,805 and 2,455). The total number of COVID-19 cases has reached almost 8 million in Africa, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Office for Africa.

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