Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Freedom of the African internet

Ahead of May 3 World Press Freedom Day, a new study of 37 countries gives the state of play for internet freedom in six African states.

Here’s the pecking order: South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Zimbabwe … and Ethiopia. (Yes, there’s a place even more restrictive than Zimbabwe.)

Although South Africa’s internet freedom leads, our international ranking has declined, and thanks in part to the arrest of a Facebooker in 2009.

All this is part of a report released on May 2 by US watchdog group Freedom House.

Their “Freedom on the Net 2011” study shows South Africa as scoring two points worse than was the case two years back.

One of the penalties incurred was for the arrest of Eldorado Park resident Duane Brady, under the common-law offence of crimen injuria for allegedly insulting someone on Facebook. Usually in South Africa, defamation is settled through either a civil case or the perpetrator apologising, or the offending content being removed from the internet.

It seems that bringing the might of the law against Brady is seen as setting a bad precedent in terms of potentially politically-motivated suppression of blogging.

Where South Africa also retrogressed, according to the Freedom House report, is in terms of limitations on content. Here the report refers to the potentially extensive monitoring made possible as Rica is enforced and in terms of the inspectorate that is supposed to be set up under the 2002 Electronic Communications and Transactions Act.

But the country’s overall score could still have been better … if we had successfully reduced the obstacles to access to the internet: no significant change is recorded over the two year period. But on this measure, however, some questions can be raised about Freedom House’s data.

It is the case, as the report points out, that Telkom still retains a near monopoly on ADSL broadband provision. But at the same time, wireless internet access (including broadband) has been growing like the number of cars accumulated by Kenny Kunene.

Freedom House gives figures of internet penetration at 9% of the population on one page and 10% in another. But their figures are drawn from World Wide Worx in January 2010, and that data fails to define what penetration really means.

As an indication of the complexity, Vodacom boss Pieter Uys said earlier this year that his company alone has 9 million internet users. Add in the other cellphone networks, some non-duplication of wired access users and you have many more South Africans online than Freedom House allows — even if these folk only use MXit or download ringtones.

Access issues aside, government involvement is a concern. Not that it’s any consolation to SA’s declining rating, but the Freedom House report says that even in democratic countries like the UK, Brazil and Turkey, internet freedom is “increasingly undermined by legal harassment, opaque filtering procedures, and expanding surveillance”.

Meanwhile, Australia, Indonesia and Italy have been working towards automated filtering by internet service providers, state-led content screening bodies and extended pre-screening requirements.

On the positive side, Freedom House reports that almost every country in its survey is still performing better on new media freedom than on media freedom in general. Also, the study shows that there is widespread use of software to bypass censorship.

For example, YouTube has remained the eighth most popular website among Turkish users despite being officially blocked there for more than two years. Vietnam’s Facebook users doubled from one to two million within a year at a time when the site was inaccessible by ordinary means.

South Africans don’t have to resort to this kind of circumvention. Hopefully, that’ll continue to be the case for many more anniversaries of World Press Freedom Day.

  • DLB

    Now if they would just make internet affordable. In the USA I paid $35.00 per month for ‘midspeed’ broadband/ADSL uncapped/unshaped internet whereas the highest speed of 4mbps (which is considered low-speed in the USA) costs 2400 rand! So that’s $342 in SA versus $35 in the USA for slow internet.
    They really need to privatise the DSL! The mobile stuff is fine but for business you need a hard line for security purposes. It’s really slowing the economy down.

  • Judith

    Loved the reference to Kenny Kunene’s cars! I would agree that there is far greater use of the Internet now that cellphones are gaining more and more access

  • Kwame

    @ Guy, I find it startling that a media person as yourself would not seek to make any comment on the dangers that are coming from within the media industry itself as opposed to the usual culprits being world governments. Ofcourse one does not seek any interference from any government in Press matters, but to sit back and present a one dimensional view of what could be a threat to press freedom is foolish.

    To start with the very Freedom House that you solely quote operates in a hypocritical environment that seeks to glorify itself and the US government above the rest of the world. Behind the scenes we know that their media is stiffled by media conglomerates serving various agenda’s including the so called ‘war on terror’ which is really a disguise for accumulating more resources globally.

    In my view, traditional media has become a lame duck for ordinary citizens, and is now serving the wishes of the corporates and their aspirations. As a result our daily news has lacked fresh perspective for years and has become a hollywood script of drama, horror, suspence etc.

    I can only celebrate that technology is breaking the foothold of these conglomerates, hence we now have wikileaks and social media. Had it not been for social media do you really think the arab awakening would have occured?

    The biggest threat to media freedom is the media itself.

  • Youngin

    @Kwame, you say that “The biggest threat to media freedom is the media itself.”

    I am sympathetic to the idea that media tend to be captured by elite interests. For instance, in India, there are an overwhelming number of cases in which politicians and wealthy businessmen bribe the media to cover particular stories, squash others and so on. These stories typically seek to hide exploitation or outright human rights abuses.

    However, for every journalist who is ‘captured’, there are many journalists who continue to fight this, even if it means being blackballed, jailed or facing assassination attempts.

    It’s certainly inaccurate to say that ‘the media’ as some kind of homogenous force is out to destroy media freedom. There are many different kinds of people, and many different kinds of journalists with different motivations, histories, commitments and so on.

    And I would like to point out that repressive legislation and state apparatus does not help the cause of media freedom. To return to the Indian example, since misreporting is a criminal offence in India, every time a powerful business man (and it usually is a man) or politician is unhappy with reporting, they can lay criminal charges. Unless you have the resources for a fabulous legal team backing you up, you will preemptively censor yourself. For me, this is the root of the problem.

    It’s important to understand the institutional character or media freedom and threats to media freedom – and that involves understanding both state and market forces.

  • Kwame

    @ Youngin, I agree with you. My point was that we hardly hear about other kinds of threats to press freedom other than that of government censorship. It is a well known fact that those who own these media houses such as Mr Rupert Murdorch are not in the media business to be ‘the eyes and ears of citizens’. They are actively in the game of controlling global perceptions and backing political campaigns such as that of Tony Blair. In return everyone is running to him to prop up their careers and agenda’s. I guess its a good business formula, especially if the american military alone spends $500 million per annum on ‘media PR’.

    Print media on the other end is all about ‘news worthiness’ which simply means ‘give me a story that can sell papers’. Todays journalists are simply competing for a screaming headline and a front page article as the editor scrambles for profit.

    In the end how can a controlled media be good for citizens. Is’nt it time we unchained our media from the profit motive, so we can venture more boldly on matters that concern citizens? Wikileaks and social media is already demonstrating what power lies when media is not serving profit.

  • seyoum777

    Hello can any one hear me? Is there such thing as a free press? Do you believe such main stream medias like the BBC, CNN, Aljazira, CNBC are really free? I do not think they are. Do these medias disseminate information on the basis of objectivity?

    For example if you guys have been following the events in the North Africa and Arab, do the main stream medias gave equal news coverage on the current appraising in Libya and Bahrain? Has the Western media gave sufficient coverage for the peace initiative by the African Union, especially regarding the meeting that took place in Addis Abab between Qaddafi’s representatives with that of the opposition? The answer is no. When I wanted to know what is currently happening in Bahrain I prefer the Press TV of Iran than the BBC of the United Kingdom. What ever the BBC do not want you to see the Press TV shows it and vise versa.

    The Western main stream medias promote the globalist agenda of the neo-colonialists. In my opinion the so called free press has been hijacked by the West.

    So, how about the CPJ or other organizations who claim to be the defender of free press, I believe they are part of the grand scheme to confuse the public and put pressure on countries that do not agree with the machination of the West. Therefore, in may opinion the main stream media including the internet is controlled and manipulated by the West.

  • The Creator

    Since the Internet can only be accessed by a tiny, affluent minority of South Africans, and since the Internet is largely used for propaganda purposes rather than the transmission of actual information, the freedom of the Internet is essentially meaningless.

    As is the endorsement or hostility of an extreme right-wing propaganda organisation like Freedom House.

    So this entire post is worthless.

  • David

    @the creator:

    Hi, could you please provide me with some further informations, links, articels on which you base you opinion that Freedom House is a “extreme right-wing propaganda organisation”?

    If I hear “extreme right-wing” I usually would think of Fox News :)

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