State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2020: Resetting Digital Rights Amidst the COVID-19 Fallout

The fight against COVID-19 has had a fundamental impact on digital rights and freedoms including freedom of expression, access to information, privacy, assembly and association. It has also undermined civic participation and, in many countries, deepened the democracy deficit. These effects are likely to persist even after the pandemic is contained. The region has witnessed enactment of draconian legislation, enforcement of repressive laws, intimidation and arrests of media practitioners, human rights defenders and other individuals. The highhandedness of governments has manifested in the enforcement of COVID-19 preventive measures, the suspension of rights through emergency declarations and the gagging of critical voices calling for transparency and accountability. The wide-ranging and corrosive effects of these measures are articulated at length in this report, most notably in chapter 3. Whereas there are some pointers towards improving access and use of ICT in Africa, COVID-19 could widen the digital divide on the continent, yet for the most part the actions of many governments have undermined, rather than promoted, greater access and affordability of digital technologies. The developments reviewed in this report, including the COVID-19-related surveillance activity, often transpired in the absence of clear, accountable and transparent oversight mechanisms. That fact aided the erosion of rights, undermined the rule of law, entrenched impunity, and diminished state accountability. It could also imply that the effects of these measures could persist for years to come, unless remedial actions are taken by all relevant stakeholders. Notably, this study has not been an audit of the privacy credentials of the systems that were deployed by governments and private actors. That still needs to be done. Indeed, the whole range of measures which governments deployed and employed is not fully known, and the push for transparency in this regard, including on how the systems worked and handled data, needs to continue. Documenting the systems and other measures introduced to fight COVID-19 must continue beyond the current report and well after the pandemic subsides. Ultimately, the full extent of the effects of the anti-COVID-19 measures on digital rights can not be exhausted at this point, but shall be known in the fullness of time.