Clamping Down on Internet Freedoms

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In the past week we have heard far too many stories about countries, too close to home, clamping down on internet freedom. South Africa made headlines on Monday when our government decided to not vote in favour of the UN Resolution on The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”. Yesterday, we heard reports that the Zimbabwean government had interfered with Whatsapp messaging, thereby preventing communication during a planned ‘stay away’ to protest the state of the Zimbabwean economy. Both instances are deeply concerning as, yet again, they serve as examples of the abuse of power when it comes to issues of internet regulation, freedom of expression, the right to communicate and the right to access to information.

On Friday, 1 July 2016, South Africa, along with countries such as China, India and Russia, voted against a UN resolution dealing with internet freedom. According to My Broadband the reason for the vote, explained by Ncumisa Pamella Notutela, the Deputy Permanent Representative for the South African Permanent Mission to the UN was that South Africa was still currently debating issues around the criminalization of racism and hate speech. Notutela said that “the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression is not absolute and carries with it duties and responsibilities for right-holders”. She went on to state that the resolution did not deal with issues of cyber bullying which was problematic. South Africa, along with the other countries that did not sign the resolution, wanted certain paragraphs amended before they would agree. According to the Association of Progressive Communication (APC), the proposed amendments “would have diluted the text and undermined the respect for human rights online which has been established in the HRC [Human Rights Council] over the last few years”. In addition, the response by the South African government ignores the fact that the resolution already addressed issues of hate speech. The explanation from the South African government does not address in enough detail the reasoning behind South Africa’s decision. We need to call on our government for a far more comprehensive explanation about their decision rather than the denial and misleading comments we have heard around the resolution not dealing with hate speech and cyber bullying.

Over the last few months we have seen various instances where we have had to deal with issues around internet freedom, freedom of expression and online regulation. These challenges appear at a time where we are seeing powerful institutions attempting to tighten regulation and push for a digital environment where censorship is being practiced and threatened. In South Africa, we have the Film and Publications Board attempting to regulate online content, and more recently, the absurd decision by SABC management to ban showing footage of violent protests. In Zimbabwe, we see government restricting the use of Whatsapp during a planned protest. We should fight these decisions occurring not only at home but in our neighboring countries too.

There is an all too common trend across all these stories including that we do not see enough interrogation by the media on these issues. In South Africa, the internet is fast becoming one of the most used platforms for communication and access to information. We cannot allow threats to internet freedom going unquestioned. Media Monitoring Africa calls on the public to demand further explanation from our government, to demand more investigation by the media and ultimately, to see those in power being held accountable for their decisions.

For more information contact:

Thandi Smith

thandis@mma.org.za

+2773 470 7306

Or

William Bird

williamb@mma.org.za

+2782 887 1370

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