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Across Africa, new battlefields for free speech take shape on social media

Why We Wrote This

Governments are increasingly aware – and often wary – of the power of social media. But so are citizens and activists, and across Africa, many are pushing back against online restrictions.

Newton Nambwaya/Reuters
A Ugandan journalist uses his camera after riot police fired tear gas to disperse activists led by musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi during a demonstration against new taxes, including a levy on access to social media platforms, in Kampala, Uganda, on July 11, 2018.

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Ahead of Zimbabwe’s July 30 elections, some voters are enjoying the freedom to criticize candidates online. It was only last year, weeks before former President Robert Mugabe was deposed in a coup, that his government arrested a young American woman for allegedly tweeting that the country was run by a “sick and selfish man.” Elsewhere in Africa, more social media freedoms are hardly the trend. Tanzania, for example, recently slapped a $900 fee on bloggers and Uganda has imposed a 5-cent daily fee on the users of many apps. But activists are increasingly viewing clampdowns on social media as a kind of early warning system for broader attempts to muzzle freedom of expression. “Around the region, you’re seeing people realize that the clamping down of online spaces is not something that they can just sit and watch,” says Joan Nyanyuki, regional director of Amnesty International. “They see that protecting freedom of expression is one of the key ways to safeguard against other human rights violations. It’s really a way that governments can be held to account by ordinary people.”

Earlier this month, Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was out on the campaign trail when his arithmetic skills suddenly failed him.

“If you add four calves to the 10 cattle you already have, you will have 40 cattle,” he pledged to a group of rural farmers, discussing a government assistance program.

Soon, the clip of the president’s bad math had gone viral, and Zimbabweans were taking to social media to rib Mr. Mnangagwa for his error.

“10 + 4 = ? When you can get that one, we’ll make you a village head,” one user tweeted at the president.

“Cannot add 10 + 4 – this one needs a walking stick,” taunted another.

The jabs were harmless enough, but until recently, they would have been nearly unthinkable. Like many African governments, the regime of Mnangagwa’s predecessor, Robert Mugabe, was notoriously thin-skinned about social media criticism. Indeed, only two weeks before Mr. Mugabe was deposed in a coup last November, his government had arrested a young American woman working in Zimbabwe for allegedly tweeting that the country was being run by a “sick and selfish man.”

For now, the temperature seems to have changed. “It’s better to let people vent instead of bottling up and then explode in anger, and social media also circumvents red tape and promotes direct communication with the people,” says Supa Mandiwanzira, the minister of Information Communication Technology and Cyber Security.

But if Zimbabwe’s webspace has changed since the days of Mugabe, it also contrasts with many other African countries today. Governments are recognizing the power of social media – and imposing restrictions accordingly. Across the continent, activists are increasingly viewing clampdowns on social media as a kind of early warning system for broader attempts to muzzle freedom of expression.

“Around the region, you’re seeing people realize that the clamping down of online spaces is not something that they can just sit and watch,” says Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s director for East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lakes regions. “They see that protecting freedom of expression is one of the key ways to safeguard against other human rights violations. It’s really a way that governments can be held to account by ordinary people.”

Newton Nambwaya/Reuters
Ugandan musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi leads activists during a demonstration against new taxes, including a levy on access to social media platforms, in Kampala, Uganda, July 11, 2018.

New restraints, new pushback

Governments have increasingly targeted social media as a way to bring unruly dissenters to heel. In Tanzania, for instance, a recently introduced law slaps a registration fee of about $900 on bloggers and online forums. A 2016 law in Rwanda makes it illegal to use a digital device to cause “annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety,” and Egypt’s government recently announced a law allowing it to block any social media users with more than 5,000 followers if they disseminate “fake news.”

In Uganda, activists took to the streets to protest a new tax on social media applications that went into effect this month. The law slaps a 200-shilling (5 US cents) daily charge on anyone who wants to use applications like WhatsApp, Twitter, or Facebook – a fee the government says will raise much-needed revenue for state coffers.

A group of lawyers, meanwhile, recently lodged a legal challenge to the charge, which they argue inhibits Ugandans – particularly poor Ugandans – from accessing and sharing information freely.

“Freedom online holds so much potential to change our society – to expose people to new ideas and connect them to the world,” says Baguma Moses, co-director of the Cyber Law Initiative, which brought the challenge at Uganda’s Constitutional Court. “So we as Ugandans aren’t willing to let this thing pass into our lives without a fight.”

Zimbabwe’s seeming shift

In Zimbabwe, the new government has attempted to show its openness to social media as a way of visibly distancing itself from the autocratic regime of Mugabe, whose iron grip on dissent resulted in broad sanctions against the country that sent Zimbabwe’s economy tanking. Mnangagwa has verified his Twitter account, opened a Facebook page, and set up a “broadcast list” on WhatsApp to send messages to his supporters.

“The government recognizes that while a tiny minority of individuals and organizations abuse social media by spreading hate speech or information and messages that cause alarm and despondency, the majority of users are law-abiding citizens,” says Mr. Mandiwanzira.

The irony of that message is not lost on Zimbabweans. In 2013, when Mnangagwa was the country’s justice minister, he himself defended a law that outlawed mocking the president on social media and elsewhere, writing in a court affidavit that it was necessary to stop a “breach of public order and public safety” and arguing the president’s authority “may be diminished if the head is savaged falsely.”

And less than two years ago, Mugabe’s government – in which Mnangagwa was then vice president – shut off popular social media applications multiple times in an attempt to stifle a protest movement organized largely by WhatsApp and under Twitter hashtags like #Tajamuka (“We have had enough”).

But Mnangagwa’s position on social media seemed to change abruptly in November 2017, when he was suddenly fired as vice president and his own supporters began to use WhatsApp and other online services to mobilize Zimbabweans to march and demand the president’s resignation. (Some 5.2 million Zimbabweans use WhatsApp, or about one-third of the country’s population.)

A few days after the protests began, Mugabe stepped down, and Mnangagwa was sworn in as president. And a few days after that, Mnangagwa posted a photo of himself at the inauguration on his Twitter feed with the tongue-in-cheek hashtag, #NewProfilePic.

“There was a lot of self-censorship [on social media before], that fear in the background, but the coup changed all that,” says Ranga Mberi, a Zimbabwean blogger with a large Twitter following.

Analysts say social media has also become an important way for the new government to demonstrate it’s serious about holding open and fair elections, which are scheduled to take place July 30.

“The government is preaching peace and tolerance, and want to prove they can win an election without violence so they are making the right noises,” says David Coltart, a former government minister and opposition politician.

The new government has also slackened its grip on traditional media, which have been given more leeway to critique the president and his government in this election cycle, analysts say. But media watchers point out there is still need to stay vigilant, particularly after the Zimbabwe Defence Force’s director of public relations recently warned several journalists to desist with their “bad and mischievous reporting,” and following physical attacks on journalists by supporters of both major political parties in recent weeks.

'It keeps them silent’

In Uganda, meanwhile, President Yoweri Museveni met last Thursday with members of Parliament from his party to discuss the social-media tax.

Their verdict: It would stand.

But organizations both local and national said they would continue to fight the tax.

“If people, particularly low-income people, can no longer express themselves, it makes them more vulnerable to other abuses of their rights,” says Ms. Nyanyuki of Amnesty. “It keeps them silent, and we don’t want that.”

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