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Freedom of Expression Concerns us All and Needs to be protected both Offline and Online

October 10, 2017

The first time my supervisor mentioned the event to me, I was totally lost. Why will she be asking me about FIFA? I paused for a moment and asked, why is she suddenly interested in football and why will she want me to be interested too? I only watch football matches when Ghana is playing. Even with that I try to detach emotions to avoid being disappointed. Luckily, before she left my desk however, she added, check the CIPESA website.


There it clicked! Oh!  It must be internet related as CIPESA is synonymous to internet freedom advocacy. The Collaboration for International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) is one of the leading think tanks promoting research in Internet freedom and digital rights advocacy issues in Africa.


I navigated the colourfully designed Website and there was a countdown ticking slowly towards the dates for the event. Fast forward, I submitted my application for travel support and I was among the 70 people to be selected from a total of 400 applicants.


The logistical arrangement and update regarding the event were sent on timely basis and a team of responsive personnel were always ready to attend to my queries. On September 27, 2017 I set off to South Africa’s vibrant city where this year’s Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) was taking place. I enjoyed every bit of the South African hospitality on South African Airways. While on board, I went through the agenda. It was a moment I wished I could be in more than one place at the same time. I wanted to attend all the sessions as they all appeared very informative and exciting. Upon arrival there was a team of drivers ready to pick up participants to the venue of the event.


The following day, September 28, 2017, we set off with business of the day which begun with the opening ceremony to mark the second anniversary of the International Day to Universal Access to Information led by the UNESCO Regional Director for Southern Africa.  The AU Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information also paid us a surprise visit, though briefly. She congratulated participants on their good works and encouraged them to keep it up. She also appealed to governments that are yet to adopt the access to information laws in their respective countries to expedite the processes.


A powerful Keynote address was delivered by Rebecca Enonchong, a Cameroonian entrepreneur. She urged all present to keep up the good work in ensuring that internet rights and freedoms are protected across the region. She called on governments to stop network disruptions which have devastating effects on economic, social and political developments.


Given the key role collaboration plays in advancing the work of civil society actors, I finally decided to participate in the first session on movement building.  Here we tackled how we could collaborate for strategic digital rights litigation. The panel was made up of strong team with diverse knowledge and expertise. We shared experiences about the various laws adopted by governments in their attempt to stifle free speech both offline and online. It was noted that most of the countries had similar experiences and laws through which governments have attempted to restrict free speech. Being armed with strategies for digital rights advocacy through collaborations, I joined the #KeepItOn family for the next session. We discussed the experiences, successes and challenges of the network and the way forward. To close the day, I participated in a session on how to improve our work through improved capacity on research in internet measurements, cyber policy and digital rights. Haven had a day packed with capacity building sessions; our evening was refreshed with a cocktail where there were a lot of exchanges. I met several people from all walks of life.


The following day, September 29, 2017, there was a marathon of exciting topics ranging from sex and sexuality in Africa to advancing a gender-sensitive approach to ICT policy and decision-making. I had the opportunity to speak on behalf of the African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) – continental network of some of the most prominent freedom of expression and media rights groups. I tackled issues of internet shutdowns. Here I highlighted a key number of incidents in which citizens remained persistent in their cause despite complete network shutdowns in fact, citizens’ natural voices became louder in a number of instances - the case of Egypt in 2011, that of The Gambia in 2016 and most recently Togo.  I urged African governments refrain from shutting down the internet and focus on investing in the sector to ensure that their citizens benefit from the powerful nature of the internet. 


As if the interesting sessions packaged for us for the day were not enough, the organisers in my opinion saved the best session for the last. The session on privacy and freedom of expression crowned this year’s Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2017. The panelists included, a police officer, a member of parliament, a representative from the Ministry of ICT, Postal and Courier services and a representative from Google. Yes it was an amazing session. I wondered how the panelists who work directly or with the government were going to assure citizens (participants) of their commitment to protecting their human rights while carrying out their duties. One of the panelists admitted it was sometimes difficult to separate his personal opinion from professional opinion especially when there is a conflict of protecting citizens’ rights and implementing the laws. Another panelist urged government officials to embrace criticism as part of the democratic structure.


Internet shutdowns which have become unpopular on the African continent were central to this 2017 FIFAfrica event. Shutdowns have devastating on political, social, economic and political development, hence the need for governments and stakeholders to come together to combat it.


It was amazing to be in the midst of participants who are committed to upholding and promoting freedom of expression rights, people who believe in the power of the power of the internet; Persons who shared their experiences of how the Internet is pivotal in their work.  The Internet has become part of our daily lives and it is our duty to protect it. The Internet is an enabler of other rights and it is our duty to protect it.


My participation in this year’s (2017) FIFAfrica has been a wonderful experience as I have acquired valuable skills regarding Internet related issues which will be relevant to my work.


Felicia Anthonio works with IFEX member, the Media Foundation for West Africa. She coordinates the activities of the African Freedom of Expression Exchange, a network continental network of 13 prominent freedom of expression organisations. Follow her on Twitter @FelAnthonio.


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