As a journalist in Africa, it is common to hear of colleagues being forced to reveal a certain source by state officials or of bloggers having their social media accounts terminated simply for doing their job as the public’s watchdog.
On October 29, 2021, I had the privilege of attending a virtual webinar on the online safety journalists in Africa hosted by the Global Cyber Alliance. I must say that I was astounded by the various items that I and many of my colleagues are unaware of that can help us work without fear of interference or of losing confidential information to online hackers. This is an incredibly important topic, and more journalists should be cognizant of these best practices and tools.
The webinar, which had two panels, was chaired by Ms. Kayle Giroud, Partnership Associate Director at GCA. The first panel, titled “Promoting Freedom Online,” was moderated by Julian Hayda and shared experiences on risks faced by journalists and what various organizations offer to tackle them. The second panel, titled “Africa Media Policy in the Digital Age,” was moderated by Mr. Emmanuel Gadasu and addressed the role of the government in protecting media freedom.
During the first panel, Mr. Mohamed Chennoufi, Education and Communities Coordinator at Access Now, presented the excellent assistance provided by their Digital Security Helpline which is globally distributed and provides real-time and free digital security advice to civil society, media, activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders around the world. What is really astounding is their ability to respond, after only two hours, in multiple languages!
Ms. Bulanda Nkhowani, program officer for Southern Africa at Paradigm Initiative, spoke about two programs, which piqued my interest. The first one, Ayeta, is a cybersecurity toolkit for African digital rights actors addressing the growing need to protect their sensitive information. The second one, Ripoti, enables journalists and the general public to report digital violations in Africa such as cyberbullying, online gender violence, internet censorship, illegal access to/and use of users’ information, and arrests based on online speech or expression. This was particularly interesting and can help boost the morale of many journalists as they often believe they are on their own when these situations arise. As Ms. Nkhowani said, we are a global community and Internet users should be aware of their digital rights and can be an advocate for the protection of human rights such as freedom of expression online.
Mr. Pa Louis Thomasi, Africa Office Director at the International Federation of Journalists, highlighted that the internet has introduced new challenges that have an impact on their safety. Women journalists in particular are frequently harassed and often forced to quit their job, which contributes to deepening the gender gap in the media industry. Mr. Thomasi discussed the state’s responsibility to protect journalists’ rights: “Journalists must be allowed to do their work without fear or intimidation.” There is a constant need to advocate for the protection of journalists and fight impunity so the perpetrators are brought to justice. In some cases, states can be the perpetrators of abuse and use cybercrime laws to undermine the protection of journalists. This was addressed in more detail by the second panel.
Indeed, Mr. Albert Antwi-Boasiako, Director General of the Ghanaian Cyber Security Authority, highlighted the existing laws in place in Ghana to protect freedom of expression online and the challenges posed by other aspects such as disinformation and data security. Cybersecurity has become one of the main areas of concern in Ghana, thus information and online safety must be protected at all costs, he said.
His opinion was challenged by Mr. Tonny Raymond Kirabira, lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London, who warned against the use of cybercrime legislation to limit free expression online. This, in my personal observation, is true in a number of countries. These laws frequently contain ambiguous provisions that grant the authorities broad powers and criminalize acts that fall under the purview of free expression. Stakeholders, including service providers and the general public, should advocate for cybersecurity, but governments must ensure that data protection laws do not interfere with other human rights, said Mr. Kirabira.
Ms. Felicia Anthonio, Lead Campaigner at Access Now, presented the #KeepItOn campaign, which unites 250+ organizations to advocate against internet shutdowns. Internet shutdowns perpetrated by states and human rights violations are linked, particularly during election and protest seasons, she explained. She made a number of recommendations to governments to help them combat cybercrime while ensuring a free press as “governments and journalists are not enemies, on the contrary, governments should support the role of the media,” she said. This can be done by conducting training on the importance of press freedom, by publicly condemning the abuse perpetrators, ensuring that journalists can work freely, and allocating resources to prosecute criminals.
The webinar was concluded by Ms. Brencil Kaimba, Cybersecurity Consultant at Serianu. She recalled the importance of journalists during the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, acting as a public watchdog and exposing various misappropriation of funds by various agencies and government bodies. Educating journalists on how to store their information safely and without interference is vital to their safety, as well as where to report cases of impunity. Journalists should not have to fear investigating and reporting news to the public.
“Journalists play a vital role. The panelists have highlighted great initiatives, tools, and policies in place to protect journalists online, as well as challenges to address and areas in need of improvement. As Ms. Kaimba rightly said in conclusion, “Protecting human rights is a journey,” concluded Ms. Giroud.
Following the webinar, I realized that cybersecurity is a topic that many African journalists and the general public are unaware of. I believe that more companies should invest in cybersecurity in Africa, and I agree with Ms. Anthonio. The government should assume responsibility for educating not only state security personnel but also the general public, because cybersecurity laws have a direct impact on human rights, particularly the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and free flow of information. More steps must be taken to raise awareness on the importance of cybersecurity. These can be accomplished through advertising, public education, and the development and promotion of cybersecurity campaigns.
The author, Eugine Micah, is a journalist and communication professional based in Nairobi, Kenya. He supported GCA’s 2021 October campaign in the region. You can contact him via LinkedIn.