To kill, beat up, or jail an African blogger, Tweep or Facebooker, that is the question

Punishments for digital transgressions include death - or six years in prison for liking a page on Facebook!

BLOGGING in north Africa is dangerous business – as is that Twitter or
Facebook app on your smartphone.

It can get you killed, or if you are lucky, you could be sentenced to jail for years.

Last week a Tunisian military court jailed blogger Yassine Ayari for six months, for allegedly “defaming” the army.

He got off lightly compared to prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who was jailed in February for five years at retrial for violating a protest law.

He was accused of organising a demonstration in 2013 and was previously given a 15-year jail term, so the five years were lenient!

In other punishments for perceived digital transgressions, last year a provincial court in Egypt’s Baheira province handed student Karim al-Banna a three-year prison sentence after he allegedly insulted Islam by confessing on Facebook that he didn’t believe in God.

In an even more bizarre case, Kerolos Shawky, an Egyptian Christian, was in June  sentenced to six years in prison for liking a Christian page of the Knights of the Cross on Facebook!

Outrageous as their sentences might be, they pale in comparison to the fate of Awad Ismail, a blogger in the Egyptian resort city of Alexandria.

Ismail was pumelled to death by police officers in June 2010. The shocking photos of his battered face went viral, and his death rallied protesters in the 2011 revolt that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, when it dovetailed with the Spring that started in Tunisia.

In April, Bassem Sabry, one of Egypt’s most respected bloggers, columnists and civil rights campaigners died after he “accidentally fell from a balcony under unclear circumstances” as the media reported it then.

Some say it was a plain straightforward accident, arising from a sugar coma; the embattled Egyptian rights community suspects he was pushed by the hand of the state.

Beyond north Africa

These attacks on bloggers and social media posters indicates a growing shift of censors’, oppressors’ and, at the most benign, regulators’ focus on digital media content producers. And while it might be at its most extreme in north Africa, everywhere else in the continent digital media creatures are being hunted. To name a few:

•In Ethiopia six ‘Zone 9’ bloggers – an independent collective of bloggers who use social media to campaign for greater political rights -  (and three freelance journalists) have been in prison since April last year.

Free Zone9 Bloggers campaign posters image by Hugh D’Andrade, remixed by Hisham Almiraat/GlobalVoices

•Zimbabwean journalist Itai Dzamara disappeared on March 9 after he was seized in Harare by armed men who handcuffed him. Dzamara is known for publishing anti-Mugabe slogans on his Facebook page and a WhatsApp group called Occupy Africa Unity Square.

•In Zimbabwe, over the last year, several people have been arrested and accused of being the mysterious Facebook blogger “Baba Jukwa”, who has gained fame and hatred for airing the dirty linen of the ruling Zanu-PF.

A University of Zimbabwe student, Romeo Musemburi, South Africa-based Zimbabwean journalist Mxolisi Ncube, The Sunday Mail editor Edmund Kudzayi and his brother Phillip, have been either appeared before authorities or been locked up on suspicision they are “Baba Jukwa”.

There is a long list of other suspects, most of whom live in the UK.

•In January Kenyan blogger Abraham Mutai was arrested for posting “offensive” material on Twitter. Mutahi is renowned for exposing of corruption on his micro-blog.

He was charged with “misusing a licensed telecommunication equipment to cause anxiety”.

•Similar offenses have been brought against controversial and abrasive Kenyan blogger Robert Alai so many times, he too has probably lost the count on how many times he has been arrested. Alai plays a complex and perplexing role as both Kenya’s villain-in-chief and digital muckraker hero; courted by the most unlikely of people, and hated in equal measure by a bewildering array of Kenyans.

Let’s start with the critics and various foes of the digital multitudes. Most of their beef can be summarised in one paragraph: That bloggers and social media posters are irresponsible out-of-control misfits, dangerous hatred mongers and blackmailers who often hide behind anonymity to destroy characters, threaten the unity of nations, besmirch the sanctity of religions, and ruin the moral values of societies.

Much of that criticism is valid, as some bloggers indeed do some or all of those things. But it is only a very small part of the story.

What all those keyboard-happy African fingers have revealed is how control of information, and therefore power, has been exercised for nearly a century on the continent, as indeed in other parts of the world.

Editor Sunday Kudzayi, one of a long list of people accused by the state to be behind the “Baba Jukwa” blog.

Because journalists and media houses in Africa are, anyway, always being harassed by governments and crooked rich men and women, we rarely think of them an essential part of the Establishment.

Who the Big Men call

However, because printing a newspaper, running a TV or a radio station takes a lot of money, very few African journalists own media. The overwhelming majority of them are employees.

The people who own media are usually more flexible and subject to cutting deals with angry governments, because their money is at risk. Therefore the primary means by which Power controls media is through the owners, not the journalists.

The first call from State House is usually to the Publisher or proprietor, or the Chairman of the media house’s board. If not, to the company’s CEO.

These fellows understand money, and when they are talking to an unhappy president they see the millions of advertising dollars from the state disappearing if they don’t play ball. It is mostly these chairmen and CEOs who call in the editors, rake them over the coals, and get them to tone down or back off.

The individual reporter or junior editor might be called directly, but by petty officials. The big boys play at the top where the significant decisions are made.

Media owners, and top leaders remain the primary means of censorship.

Digital media, especially blogs, removed this middleman. Now even the poorest of journalist or any other citizen, as long as he can afford half-a-dollar a day for internet or airtime for his mobile phone, can publish and reach millions.

By so doing they subvert or circumvent the old control Establishment. This is their original “sin”.

Which is why they take the brunt of angry Power – the buffer, in the form of the Chairman of the Board or Publisher – are no longer there to intermediate.

But it is in the area of hate speech, that social media and blogs have truly been disruptive. There was always hate speech before social media.

It is important to understand that it existed as a political resource. The Hutu extremists used it to deadly effect in Rwanda in 1994 to mobilise for the genocide against the Tutsi and Hutu groups that opposed them. One million killed are testimony to that.

The return on hate speech

In other countries politicians used it to rally their communities to attack other groups to take away their land, to chase them away from grazing grounds, or to bargain for jobs; i.e. “if you don’t make me a minister my people will not vote for you or will burn the shops of your tribesmates in my hometown”.

Hate speech, therefore, was instrumentalist.

Social media has taken away the monopoly on hate speech by ethnic overlords, and reduced its political premium, although it remains as deadly and should be condemned, politicians see it just another resource.

The guy who is calling the shots in demonising a rival ethnic community, and has 150,000 followers on Twitter, is today likely to be anonymous bloke who doesn’t want to be minister. He is wasting the capital that ethnic entrepreneurs had traded in for decades to negotiate for favours.     

As the saying goes, “There is nothing as dangerous as a man [or woman] under no authority”. Power in Africa takes that seriously, and sees the net as a place infested with dangerous digital outlaws who live outside their authority. It is that fact which they hate the most. What the digital renegades say is secondary.

This means bloggers will continue to be killed and jailed. I wish I could say different.

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