News / Africa

Africa's Governments Confront Social Media Protests

Protesters hold "f"s in recognition of social network site Facebook's role in the North African revolts, during a protest in Rabat, Morocco (Mar 2011 file photo)
Protesters hold "f"s in recognition of social network site Facebook's role in the North African revolts, during a protest in Rabat, Morocco (Mar 2011 file photo)
Nico Colombant

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has condemned the Uganda Communications Commission for ordering telecom companies to block access to social networking websites.  The order came earlier this month as activists were planning protests against higher prices and corruption. The commission said it took the action to reduce the threat of violence.

There were disruptions to the websites, but some telecom companies either asked for clarification or refused to comply, and messages still went through. Protests have since been spreading from the capital Kampala to other towns.

Anti-government protesters sit next to a "Facebook" graffiti sign during demonstrations inside Tahrir Square in Cairo (File)
Anti-government protesters sit next to a "Facebook" graffiti sign during demonstrations inside Tahrir Square in Cairo (File)

Activists across the continent say they are inspired by the social media-energized upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt which toppled long-time rulers. Similar campaigns are being tried from Burkina Faso in western Africa to Swaziland in the south and Ethiopia in the east.

On Facebook, hundreds of Ethiopians have changed their profile photos to posters that have the Amharic word for "Enough."  Several groups are calling for nationwide protests on May 28th, 20 years after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came to power.  

William Kalema, whose parents are from Uganda, attended a recent Washington conference called "Wireless Democracy: Innovation in Africa."

Kalema says most Africans initially saw cell phones and Internet technology as offering economic opportunities, but he says much more is now at stake.

"Young Africans are using these technologies and they have not just an economic effect but a political one. They are sort of bringing together people from across the continent," said Kalema.

But Kalema says African governments like Uganda's have proven they are able to intercept messages as Uganda's did during this year's presidential election, reducing the effect of technology-driven protests.

"There is the potential but if governments are not open to it, that potential cannot be realized," said Kalema. "So I think there is definitely the potential for it to have political impact but I was troubled by the fact that intercepting text messages, it sort of undermines that process."

Kalema also points out that the most widely-seen video produced during the campaign showed long-time President Yoweri Museveni rapping, before he won re-election for his fourth term.

Another video which went viral recently - meaning thousands of people showed it to each other - has Angolan rapper Brigadeiro Mata Frakuzx railing against Angola's ruler for the past 32 years, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

The rapper was arrested in March for a few hours before a planned midnight protest which had been promoted on Facebook.

While these viral videos are being watched, and protests are being planned, the U.S. State Department is organizing workshops and contests across Africa to promote the use of new technologies to improve governance.

Katie Dowd, whose title is adviser for innovation at the State Department, says her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is a strong proponent of Internet freedom.

"Secretary Clinton has an aggressive Internet freedom agenda. It is something that is included in our relations with other countries. It is something that we address," Dowd said. "We have a bureau called democracy, human rights and labor that focuses specifically on addressing Internet freedom and how we make sure it is part of our foreign policy agenda."

Dowd says the U.S. government helps social media activists with training and ideas, as well as support for projects, such as an application designed in Uganda that allows any audio, video or text message depicting alleged corruption to be directly transmitted to legal and media partners.

"We certainly want to encourage tools that enable the broader civic participation and engagement and believe that technology can open up channels of communication and conversation that were not otherwise there," said Dowd. "So where we can add value in that capacity building we certainly want to add value and hope those governments will listen where that is possible."

But some African government officials view such activities as outside meddling, undermining security and state institutions.

Earlier this year, when activists used crowd-sourcing technology (-gathering information from like-minded individuals -) to encourage protests in Sudan's capital Khartoum, a high-ranking member of the ruling party said government "cyber jihadists" would, in his words, crush any Internet-centered dissent.  Mandur al-Mahdi said the government has its own "cyber battalion" which he said is at the forefront of online defense operations.

Supporters of the Sudanese ruling party inundated anti-government Facebook pages with their own messages, warning people to stay at home during protests, which quickly fizzled out.

You May Like

Video In US, Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy

Holiday marks date Columbus discovered Americas, but some are offended by legacy because he enslaved many natives he encountered More

Video Through Sports, Austria Tries to Give Migrants Traction

With 85,000 people expected to claim asylum in Austria this year, its government has made integration through joint physical activities a key objective More

Video Kickboxing Champion Shares Sport With Young Migrants

Pouring into Europe by hundreds of thousands, some migrants, especially youngsters, are finding sports a way to integrate into new host countries More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs