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.