Civil Society in the Digital Age in Africa: Identifying Threats and Mounting Pushbacks

The digital age has created immense opportunities to enhance civic engagement by creating new frontiers for the exercise of freedom of association and peaceful assembly. These rights are recognised in seminal human rights instruments including articles 20 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 20 of the Uni versal Declaration of Human Rights, and articles 10 and 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The digital space has had monumental influence on landmark human rights movements in Africa such as the Arab Spring and Sudan’s 2018-2019 popular uprising, and it has steadily been promoting the democratic agenda driven by civil society across Africa. Unfortunately, these developments have not escaped the notice of oppressive governments that are increasingly adopting undemocratic measures to restrict the exercise of right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, as well as interdependent rights such as freedom of expression, right to access of information, and right to privacy in the digital space. This is witnessed in increased state sponsored online and offline surveillance, internet shutdowns, network disruptions, online harassment, remote intrusion of civil society websites, censorship and other measures that seek to further shrink the civic space. The report documents the threats to civil society in the digital age by examining the legislative and regulatory framework in four countries in Africa: Egypt, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia. These countries were selected from the four main geographic regions of Africa, in order to provide a sense of the state of civic engagement in the digital age across the continent. The case studies are clearly not representative of what is happening on the continent, but are illustrative of some prominent trends. The recommendations emanating from the research call for the states to revise and repeal identified restrictive laws and align them with international standards. Civil society organisations and human rights activists are also encouraged to enhance their individual and organizational digital knowledge and expertise to more robust counter disruptive state measures. This expertise should be enhanced through a human rights lens and should extend to other stakeholders including judicial officers, legislators, law enforcement and the general public through sustained multi-stakeholder engagement.