Digital rights and inclusion advocacy is making an impact in Africa, despite persistent challenges

Over 200 delegates from across Africa and the world joined the seventh edition of the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum (DRIF) hosted by Paradigm Initiative in Lagos, Nigeria, between 23 and 25 April. The Forum, previously known as Internet Freedom Forum, featured 21 sessions focused on securing human rights in the digital age and expanding digital access to marginalised populations.

Organisations hosting sessions included ARTICLE 19, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Access Now. Participants came from a wide range of stakeholder sectors, inlcuding academia, the human rights community, government policy circles and the private sector.

The sessions, which could be followed with the hashtag #DRIF19, were well attended both physically and via social media, with remote participants connecting through the Forum’s YouTube page and on Twitter. Among the issues covered were refugee digital rights, 5G and human rights, community networks and alternative models for internet access provision, the intersection of technology, internet and gender for minority groups, internet censorship, and how to move policy makers into action to advance digital inclusion.

Digital inclusion: Diversity and range of new audience at #DRIF19

This was the first edition of the Forum where digital inclusion became mainstream in conversations, and unsurprisingly, this change was reflected in the diversity and range of the new audience that attended the event. #DRIF19 fulfilled the yearnings and expectations of the communities that had hoped for digital policy conversations to include references to practical, real-life consequences of digital impacts on other socioeconomic sectors of nations. One such session, “State of States: Using Open Data to Drive Subnational Development in Nigeria”, hosted by BudgIT Nigeria, touched on improving transparency in national budgeting and accounting systems was and titled. Another session, “Community Networks and Alternative Models for Internet Access Provision’’, organised by APC, emphasised how local communities could cooperate to build community-transforming internet access infrastructure wholly owned and managed by local communities.

Many of the sessions at the Forum were manifestations of real progress made on the ground in communities across Africa by digital rights and inclusion advocates. Lives and communities are being improved by important work done by many of the practitioners represented.

Despite all these efforts, it is in fact very possible to lose sight of the contributions made by digital rights and inclusion advocates and practitioners in light of the negative headlines emerging from Africa. These include internet service disruptions in Chad, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Benin; the refusal of President Buhari of Nigeria to sign the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill despite its importance in securing digital rights in Nigeria; and the arrest of Dr. Wakabi Wairagala, the executive director of Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) on 25 April 2019 by Tanzanian authorities.

The negative news spewing forth from the continent tends to overshadow the many efforts and good developmental work on the continent. Negative occurrences can be discouraging – like the arrest of Dr. Wakabi on the last day of #DRIF19 – and can lead to self-doubt about the effectiveness of our work.

What is important, though, is the need for perspective. There will probably be more internet disruptions in Africa this year and perhaps more human rights activists will be arrested and incarcerated during the course of the year. Media houses and media websites might also be shut down in the months ahead. We must never be shaken to discouragement. Instead, we must continue to stay in the fight for human rights and development, never neglecting to also actively promote our own impact stories to counter the flood of negative narratives which threaten to define our work.

Babatunde Okunoye is the research lead at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, a member of the coalition of organisations actively promoting the adoption of the principles of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms throughout the African region.

Photo courtesy of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria.


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