How to ensure digital access to information in Africa

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The right to access information and by extension the right to Internet and Internet-based information is today recognised as key for open and democratic societies. The technical possibilities to provide this access digitally vary greatly across the world and especially the gap between rich and poor countries have raised concerns over a global ‘digital divide’. Even though digitization ranks low on the priority lists of many developing countries, the increasing tech savviness in many African countries has the potential to reduce this gap. Good digital practices for improving citizens’ access to information can further reduce other inequalities, like income and education. Digital access should not be seen as a separate goal, however, but rather as a means to enhance and support ‘analogue’ practices. In order to reap the fruits of the growing technical know-how for ensuring access to information, it is necessary to combine the legal arguments for why with the technical solutions for how.

The analogue right to access information

One such analogue practice is to institutionalise the right to access information. While advocates for the freedom of information in Western democracies are largely concerned with the free flow of digital information and unrestricted online communication and file-sharing, efforts to promote freedom of information in most African countries are fundamentally focused on championing citizen’s right to access government-held information – with limited success so-far. Even though more and more African countries are adopting so-called Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, too many of them remain unimplemented and ineffective. Indeed, it will require much more than adopting these FOI laws to improve access to government data, increase transparency and expand the frontiers of democracy. How to implement these laws is key.

Technical solutions have great potential for open government platforms, proactive information sharing on government websites, and civil society monitoring. Digital democracy – also referred to as e-democracy or Internet democracy – is a growing concept worldwide that essentially refers to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in political and governance processes. Importantly, ICTs are seen as an addition to and not a replacement for traditional ‘analogue’ political practices. There is a wide consensus that the Internet can contribute to improving political participation. The use of Internet and ICTs contains immense potential for the notion of digital democracy, both with the growing possibilities of e-government and e-participation but also the aspect of increasing information flows and transparency in government.

Digital access and right to the Internet

Digital access, that is access to Internet and communication devices, is naturally a fundamental prerequisite for citizens’ use of ICTs in political participation. The right to Internet access is embedded within the notion of both digital access and access to information, as Fola Adeleke and Matilda Lasseko Phooko (2010) argue in their chapter ‘Towards realizing the right of access to Internet-based information in Africa’. Key to their argument is the point that while ‘access to information’ is a socio-economic resource, the Internet is increasingly the way to actually access information.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank estimates that only 25.4% of people on average used the Internet in 2018. This greatly differs across the continent, from 56.2% in South Africa to 1.3% in Eritrea. Further, estimates on Internet use in Africa often suffer from large margins of error, as they are based on poor measures and thus do not always reflect the reality on the ground.

Ultimately, the increased spread and usage of ICTs in Africa has the potential to enhance citizens’ access to information. In order for digital technologies to benefit everyone everywhere, and especially harnessing the benefits of Internet access for digital democracy and political participation, the remaining digital divide must be closed. If governments and citizens both take advantage of the digital revolution, ICTs can improve the access to and use of information. However, the potential for transparency and open government practices depends on how it is being leveraged.

Digital democracy was on the rise in Africa, but is now being challenged by misrepresentation, high prices – Malawi is said to have the most expensive Internet in the world – and repression. This has been termed ‘digital dictatorship’, or what Freedom House has labelled ‘the rise of digital authoritarianism’. In her book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, Nyabola (2018) examines digital democracy in Kenya and explores how political elites try to prevent social movements from translating their online political participation into meaningful offline political gains. This study shows that citizens and politicians alike have found new ways for their messages to travel far and fast. However, as elsewhere in the world, African societies and politics are facing speculations and disinformation, fake news and propaganda disseminated online, affecting the public debate. Especially Internet shutdowns have become a new normal in Africa.

Combining the right to access to information with digital solutions

Leaving behind the question of digital access in Africa, let us turn to the question of how to improve citizens’ access to government data with the aim of increasing transparency and expanding the frontiers of democracy. Two prominent civil society campaigns have become the global mouthpiece of advocacy towards a more open and transparent governance. The first is the Freedom of Information (FOI) campaign, which is largely regarded as a global social movement. In Africa, this campaign is spearheaded by the Africa Freedom of Information Centre. More recently, a similar movement in the form of open government data (OGD) was launched to help support the idea of greater openness and accountability in governance. This was later followed by the Open Government Partnership (OGP) between governments and civil society advocates currently counting 14 African government members (out of 78 worldwide). The shared core underpinning of these two movements is that establishing an accessible (free) public data regime in countries will promote democratic governance and improve transparency and accountability relations.

There is, however, a key difference between the two advocacy campaigns. As Afful-Dadzie and Afful-Dadzie (2017) find, while FOI campaigns focus on the law and legal arguments for the right to information, OGD campaigns focus on the use of technology and digital solutions for open data. The OGD approach is in that sense leveraging more on new technical possibilities for how governments can communicate and share information with their citizens. While fears of OGD narrowing its focus too much to data access technologies have been voiced, it now seems that in Africa – where FOI campaigns arguably have gained more traction than OGD – should focus more on digital advantages in providing citizens with access to information.

Some would argue that the main challenges of African ‘access to information’ regimes are more fundamental in nature than can be remedied by digital tools. The key issues in implementing FOI in Africa include poor archiving practices, history of oral communication, and the cost of producing information for the requester. ICTs and digital information platforms can offer some practical technical solutions to these issues by reducing costs and making it easier to create national government platforms for sharing information such as police and health records, education certificates, and so on. In sum, if implementation of right to information regimes are to be successful, policy discussions need to put more emphasis on how to leverage technical possibilities in realising fundamental rights to access to information. Good analogue practices must be supported by technical solutions.

Lisa-Marie Selvik is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Comparative Politics at the University of Bergen, Norway. Her project analyses how civil society actors attempt to advance democratic rights in African democracies, by focusing on the policy-issue of ‘citizen’s right to information’.

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