Imagining an African Internet: Dialogue with civil society at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights

Plenary session at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Banjul, The Gambia

On the last day and the last session of the NGO Forum of the 56th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights [AcMHPR], CAL, with support from the Association for Progressive Communications [APC], hosted a side event.

It was a daring time to choose to host this conversation, but posters were put up and people were invited to take part in a conversation that had never take part at the AcMHPR, Internet Governance in Africa and how we imagine and African Internet. Titled, ‘Imagining an African Internet: what do we know about Internet governance in Africa?’.

The side event, which takes place outside ongoing plenary reporting sessions at the NGO Forum, aimed to collect diverse voices from women and men working on or interested in Internet governance issues, as well as to gauge where activists are in our knowledge and interactions with the Internet directly, and it’s governance indirectly.

To our surprise, the room slowly filled up as nearly 20 mostly women and some men showed up to participate and contribute to this conversation. Present were activists and human rights defenders from Senegal, Cameroun, South Africa, Mali, Ethiopia, Kenya, Gambia, Tanzania, Algeria and Mauritania. This was great because despite the seemingly small number of attendees, it was representative of the geographical diversity of Africa, with North, West, East, South and Central Africa represented in this space.

Despite the challenge that language offers in spaces with such geographical representation, some of the people attending offered to translate between French and English for the Francophone speakers in the room. The discussion started on a general note-with the CAL facilitator finding out from the participants what and how we use the internet. it emerged that the internet is a central part in all our work, and is a space for connection of people across socio-economic and cultural backgrounds and contexts.

It emerged that for many human rights defenders and activists the internet was considered a relatively safe space for engaging with each other, but also for accessing information that isn’t always readily accessible. At the same time, the internet is a space that many other people use to act out violence against women, as well as queer and gender non-conforming people. Participants from all the countries had stories as first hand experiences or encounters they had come across to share about this kind of violence.

This conversation then led us to unpacking briefly, the Feminist Principles of the Internet, a working document produced by APC and allies, which aims to give feminists and non-feminists a reference document for identifying, confronting and addressing violence against women online. The participants felt that it was a document that they could work with and looked forward to engaging more with it in the future.

We also managed to engage with the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms. By unpacking and discussing the African Declaration, the participants managed to confront censorship, access and interference of State when it came to their interactions ad experiences with the Internet. Access came up as an issue, and regulation of access by states, whether by pricing the Internet out for rich for a majority rural and/or working class Africans. There were also a few conversations happening that spoke to ‘spy bills’ and ‘surveillance bills’ being passed in countries like Kenya, without the involvement of civil society, and which impacted the accessibility of certain content online.

All in all, it was nearly two and a half hours of surveying the context and space with regard to the Internet, and where we ourselves as activists who work not only with, but for the freeing of the Internet. The atmosphere was one of hope, and activists said that they felt the time was ripe for activism around and involving the use, representation, access and governance of the Internet to also be more present at the AcHMPR.

-Sheena Gimase Magenya

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