Scribes seek freedom in cyberspace

By John Churu, Gaborone, Botswana

Journalists from the Southern African bloc were in Botswana for deliberations on the findings of an earlier survey on “Freedom of Expression in Cyberspace.”

The survey conducted in June 2013 was via a partnership between the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and Privacy International (PI).  

Michael Phoya, the author of the report was quoted as saying “The rapid growth of information communication technologies (ICTs) in Africa has led to a massive digitalisation of information, which has in turn, opened up various social and economic opportunities – especially internet powered information and has resulted in most governments feeling uncomfortable about their own positions.”

Counter filtering, while not a very common tactic by governments is an ever-present option. Pending legislation in Malawi, for example, alludes to content filtering and puts in this burden on Internet Service providers (ISPs), whose failure to comply may result in revocation of operating licenses and or legal action.

“The implications for these actions on freedom of expression and media freedom is enormous” 

Seeing that advances in computer and mobile technology, the expansion of the internet and the development of social networks and digital tools have removed many geographic, social, and political barriers to the exchange of news and information, there was need to interrogate levels of freedom of expression for those that engage in new media.

“At the same time, these developments have created new areas of vulnerability for media professionals and bloggers who often are not fully aware of how these new technologies can threaten their privacy and security.” 

According to MISA, the rationale for the project was that there was a level of insecurity surrounding the use of digital and mobile technology by journalists and bloggers, protection of users’ privacy is now critical particularly when citizens and journalists use online platforms social networks and mobile devices to express themselves on a wide range of issues.

“With this in mind, respondents who comprised of journalists, bloggers, human rights activists, academics, technology experts and students were surveyed to gauge their understanding of the risks and threats they face when using digital media in their line of work.”

The questions which were asked respondents included the following: Have you ever been threatened or personally attacked because of your online /mobile work? If yes what was the nature of your violation and what action was taken to address it?

Have you ever suspected that any of your communications devices were under threat from spyware or malware? If yes, how did you identify the threat and what did you do to deal with it?

Are you familiar with terms like HTPS, Encryption, Safe e-mail providers, virtual private networks (VPNs) and secure storage spaces? How do you rate your ability to use risk reduction tools and strategies when working on computers, using mobile phones or navigating the internet; how familiar are you with internet human rights law; what do you understand by communications surveillance?

“Fifty-seven percent of the respondents are aware of private laws in their country while 43% are not.”

In as far as threats and attacks due to their online or mobile work was concerned, respondents said email account hacking was the most serious digital risk they face. Nearly all respondents rely heavily on the internet and actively use digital tools to communicate and gather information.

“Only 15% of respondents said they have been previously attacked because of their online work. The common abuse/violation cited were insulting emails and comments on social networks sites like Facebook and Twitter. Others reported cases where they were personally threatened by government officials,” said the MISA survey.

Most of the respondents understand communications surveillance as the monitoring of communications, whether digital, mobile, or otherwise to gain information on a person’s activities and interactions without their knowledge or consent. “In most cases the culprit is the government,” noted the report in the possession of biztechafrica.                             

 A respondent was quoted as saying, “I do not suspect, I know. The government keeps tags on all mobile phone users and subscribers through telecoms regulations that require everyone to register personal details with their network service provider.”

Some recommendations coming from MISA were that; ICTs can help increase quantity and even the quality of journalism and access to information in Africa; however, there were some notable stumbling blocks, there was also need for MISA to sensitise users on how to avoid ordeal with spyware and other malicious software, and that MISA should formulate policy or train journalists, bloggers and human rights activists on key tools and tactics.      

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