Many countries in Africa are experiencing a closing of civic space: a reduction in the freedom of citizens to openly discuss politics, criticise government policies, and to take an active part in key decisions that affect their health, education, liberty and livelihoods.
In Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, for example, when the government arrested journalists and banned public demonstrations, young people responded creatively, using the internet and mobile phones to open civic space. Using SMS, social media, encrypted messaging and even satellite TV to connect, organise, develop policy alternatives and successfully challenge the government narrative.
This network brings together activists, analysts and researchers from seven African countries who have tracked and analysed hashtag campaigns like #BringBackOursGirls in Nigeria and #RhodesMustFall in South Africa and advocated against government-initiated network disruptions including through the #KeepItOn campaign. Some members of the network have also organised digital security training for human rights defenders to safely communicate online including in dangerous and restrictive environments.
The network is also studying the growing use of digital surveillance tools by governments and the employment of “coordinated inauthentic actors” such as so-called troll farms, bot armies and cyborg networks to drown out debate and close civic space online.
‘Digital rights’ are universal human rights in digital spaces. They include, but are not limited to, the right to privacy, freedom from violence, freedom of political opinion, freedom of expression and freedom of association. The overall objective of the African Digital Rights Network (ADRN) is to produce a better understanding of the actors and technologies involved in the opening and closing of civic space online, and to build the capacity of citizens to exercise, defend and expand their rights online and offline.
To build the network the Digital & Technology research cluster, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, is working with the analyst and author Nanjala Nyabola, Berhan Taye from Access Now, Atnafu Berhane from CARD Ethiopia, Koketso Moeti from Amandla.mobi, Jan Moolman from the Association of Progressive Communications (APC), Juliet Nanfuka from the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Natasha Msonza from the Digital Society of Zimbabwe, Kiss Abraham from New Zambian Innovations, Turgay Celik and Iginio Gagliardone from the University of the Witwatersrand, Anand Sheombar from HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht, Tanja Bosch from the University of Cape Town, George Karekwaivanane from the University of Edinburgh, Ayo Ojebode from the University of Ibadan, and Sam Phiri from the University of Zambia.
This collaborative research project includes activists, analysts, and practitioners with deep contextual knowledge into a multi-disciplinary research team. The network will begin by producing seven Country Digital Landscape Reports to scope the existing political and technological landscape in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
An analysis of existing capacity and gaps will inform the design of a broader programme of research beyond the inception year. We will use the Country Digital Landscape Reports to identify cross-cutting research themes and produce thematic reports that build the knowledge and capabilities of citizens to exercise, defend and expand the rights guaranteed to them in law but denied to them in practice.
The funding for the network comes from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) through the United Kingdom Research Institute (UKRI) fund for Digital Innovation for Development in Africa (DIDA) in the research area Digital Rights. The UKRI announcement of the funding is here.