Twitter activists freed from jail, but African governments are watching you; it's 'war' in Ethiopia

Users of social media in Africa are likely to be young, so those arrested for “digital crimes” are often barely out of their teens.

THREE sisters jailed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since February for campaigning on Twitter for the release of their imprisoned brother were released on Friday, but it highlights the harsh measures that governments are increasingly deploying to control freedom of expression in the digital space – even for ordinary users of social media.

Issa al-Suwaidi was convicted for links to al-Islah, an Islamist group accused of conspiring to overthrow the government, and is now serving a 10-year sentence, according to Bloomberg.

The UAE says al-Islah is a franchise of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has similarly been proscribed as a terrorist organisation in Egypt.

A statement from Amnesty International says it is not yet known what pressure the al-Suwaidi sisters – Asma, Mariam and Alyaziyah – were under while in detention; if they were charged with any offence, or it their release carries any conditions.

In the year running from May 2013 to May 2014, more people have been detained or prosecuted for their digital activities than ever before, says the latest report on Internet freedom by Freedom House. 

In those 12 months, arrests for online communications were documented in 38 of the 65 countries studied in Freedom on the Net 2014, with social-media users identified as one of the main targets of government repression.

Still, the three sisters are among those lucky to be released, unlike many other bloggers and Tweeps in Africa. And because users of social media in Africa, are likely to be young, those arrested for “digital crimes” are often barely out of their teens.

In Sudan, for example, three teenagers were arrested in Northern Kordofan for posting and commenting on a link to an online article on Facebook about corruption charges of the zakat (“philanthropy”) unit in the government of Northern Kordofan, says the report.

Punished for live-tweeting

They were released after interrogations but quickly re-arrested and charged with defamation; details of their conviction are unknown as of mid-2014.

In Zimbabwe, teenage Facebook user Gumisai Manduwa was arrested in January 2014 for allegedly insulting President Robert Mugabe after he posted on his Facebook page that Mugabe “had died and was being preserved in a freezer.”

A higher score means a more repressive environment. Source: Freedom House

Aged 18 at the time, Manduwa was released on bail two days after his arrest. His case remains on the court’s docket as of mid-2014.

In another case, 21-year-old Shantel Rusike was arrested in December 2012 for sending an image depicting President Mugabe “in a nude state” via WhatsApp on her mobile phone. Rusike faces charges of “causing hatred, contempt or ridicule of the president”.

In Nigeria, two were arrested for posts on social media platforms; one for allegedly criticising the governor of Bayelsa state on his Facebook page, and the other was arrested in March 2014 for live-tweeting an incident involving Boko Haram militants and the State Secret Service.

In Ethiopia, social media is not just a way to pass the time – the authorities regard it as an instrument of war. A cybersecurity law passed in 2013 states that “social-media outlets, blogs, and other internet-related media have great capabilities to instigate war, to damage the country’s image, and create havoc in the economic atmosphere of the country.”

The law empowers the government to investigate computers, networks, internet sites, radio and television stations, and social media platforms “for any possible damage to the country’s social, economic, political, and psychological well-being.” 

Critics of the law say its scope is far too broad, and is being abused to crack down on any form of dissent, as was in the case of the Zone9 bloggers.

The six bloggers from the critical Zone9 blogging collective and three journalists associated with Zone9 were arrested in late April 2014 on charges of terrorism. They were accused of “working with foreign organisations that claim to be human rights activists… and receiving finance to incite public violence through social media” and remain in jail awaiting trial.

Another Ethiopian blogger and Twitter activist, Zelalem Workagegnehu, is being detained  along with nine other writers, activists and opposition politicians. The defendants have been charged with having links to diaspora-based opposition groups designated by the Ethiopian government as “terrorist organisations” and also social media related activities.

Skype crimes

Repressive African governments also have Skype on their radar: In December 2013, Gambian opposition supporter Lasana Jobarteh was arrested at a political rally and accused of broadcasting the rally without a license. 

Jobarteh was using Skype on his iPad to transmit coverage of the rally to the Freedom Newspaper online outlet based abroad, which the Gambian authorities cursorily determined to be a violation of broadcast license requirements. He was convicted and fined $1,250.

In Sudan, the government shut down a popular TEDxKhartoum event in May 2013. Despite months of preparation that included support from a number of government institutions, security agents obstructed the event minutes after it began, threatening to revoke the organisers’ permit and later cut off the facility’s electricity.

Because the event had no political agenda, the main organizer of TedxSudan, Anwar Dafa-Alla, believed that the government was nervous about the event being live-streamed, the Freedom House report states.

Death for owning mobile phone

But the most alarming reprisals against the use of social media are not even being carried out by governments, says the Freedom House report. Though nothing on this level has happened yet in Africa, in Pakistan, Arifa Bibi, a mother of two, was stoned to death in June 2013 by villagers after a local court in the Dera Ghazi Khan region of Punjab convicted her of merely possessing a mobile phone.

And the same month, a group of men fatally shot a mother and two daughters in Gilgit Baltistan, in northern Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. A video of the women laughing and playing in the rain had been circulating on local mobile networks, which male family members considered shameful – and they killed them for it.

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