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Digital rights and inclusion advocacy is making impact despite challenges

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Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum (formerly Internet Freedom Forum). Photo/boxofficestudios

From April 23 – 25, 2019, Lagos played host to the 7th edition of its Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum (formerly Internet Freedom Forum) with over 200 delegates from across Africa and the world participating.

Organised by Paradigm Initiative, the Forum featured 21 sessions over 2 days hosted by organizations including Article 19, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), The Open Observatory of Network Interference and AccessNow.

The Forum also welcomed a diverse delegate cohort drawn from academia, the human rights community, government policy circles and private sector were engaged in deep conversations and networking towards securing human rights in the digital age and expanding digital access to marginalized.

The sessions at #DRIF19 included those on ‘’Refugee Digital Rights’’, ‘’5G and Human Rights’’, ‘’Community Networks and Alternative Models for Internet Access Provision’’, ‘’Intersection of Technology, Internet and Gender for Minority Groups’’, ‘’Uncovering Internet Censorship’’ and ‘’Moving Policy Makers into Action to Advance Digital Inclusion – A candid Conversation’’. The sessions were well attended on both days of the event, and via social media. Remote participants connected through #DRIF19’s YouTube page and on Twitter using the trending hashtag #DRIF19.

It 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 graced the event. #DRIF19 fulfilled the yearnings and expectations of the communities, which had hoped for digital policy conversations to include references to practical, real-life consequences of digital impact on other socio-economic sectors of nations.

One of such sessions which touched on improving transparency in national budgeting and accounting systems was hosted by BudgIT Nigeria and titled, ‘’State of States: Using Open Data to Drive Subnational Development in Nigeria’’.

Another was organized by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) titled ‘’Community Networks and Alternative Models for Internet Access Provision’’ emphasized how local communities could cooperate to build community-transforming Internet access wholly owned and managed by local communities.

Speaking on the challenges facing efforts to improve internet penetration, Funke Opeke, the chief executive of MainOne Cable, emphasized the need for government to partner the private sector instead of constituting itself as a stumbling block to expand internet access. She said governments in other climes “create the right incentives and structures to facilitate access to the internet, especially in the rural areas. Dr Ernest Ndukwe, a former chief executive of the Nigerian Communication Commission, also urged civil society and active citizens “to focus more attention on what government can do to ensure people have access.”

The Forum also provided a platform for conversations on efforts to ensure human rights online are not violated and that more people in Africa are connected to the internet.

Anriette Esterhuysen, the former executive director of the Association for Progressive Communications, in her submission, argued that the internet has to be protected and remain open as “it is the usually the only means of expression for some minority groups to access information on issues that are not openly discussed.”

This arose on the backdrop of conversation on internet censorship that has rocked the continent over the last few years. Africa now leads with the highest number of countries shutting down the internet or restricting service.

In Chad, for example, social media has been shut down by the government for over a year now. In 2019 alone, Chad, Sudan, Zimbabwe and DR Congo have either shut down the internet or restricted access to services.

Many of the sessions at #DRIF19 were manifestations of real progress made on the ground – in communities across Africa by digital rights and inclusion advocates. Lives and communities are been improved by important work done by many of the practitioners represented at #DRIF19.

The negative news spewing forth from the continent seem to have an outsized effect, and tends to drown the positive messaging emerging from good developmental work on the continent. Negative occurrences too can be discouraging – like the arrest of CIPESA’s Executive Director, Dr. Wairagala Wakabi in Tanzania 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; and maybe media houses and media websites will be shut down in the months ahead. We must never be shaken to despair.

Instead, citizens and advocates alike must continue to stay in the fight for human rights and development, never neglecting to also aggressively push out impact stories to counter the flood of negative narratives which threaten to define our work.

This article was written by Babatunde Okunoye for Paradigm Initiative.


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