The right to receive, seek and impart information is well-entrenched under international law – through, for instance, the UDHR, the ICCPR and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter) – as well in many domestic laws across the continent. However, the reality on the ground in achieving the realisation of the right gives rise to concern.

The internet has enabled an expansion of civic space and a fuller enjoyment of fundamental rights, although this has not necessarily been welcome in all states. Unfortunately, for many people across the region, access remains a serious challenge. Indeed, internet penetration in Africa is low compared to other continents. According to 2017 ITU data, only 21.8% of African residents have used the internet, compared to 43.7% in the Arab States, 43.9% in the Asia/Pacific region, 65.9% in the Americas, and 79.6% in Europe.

For those who do have access, this access does not come without challenges and restrictions. There are currently various laws and policies in different countries across the region that have been proposed or have been adopted that seek to regulate the internet, and directly encroach – or have the potential to encroach – on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression online. Some countries have also seen a crackdown on human rights defenders and journalists who challenge the state authorities through the institution of criminal and other legal proceedings against them.

While many states appear to see the value of the internet for economic development and education, this is accompanied by a lack of trust in the internet and the concerns for the mobilising power that this can afford to individuals and groups.

In response, civil society organisations and members of the media across the region have taken a firm stand in the face of these challenges. Concerted efforts at policy reform and strategic litigation have served as a bastion into the erosion of the right to freedom of expression. The regional and sub-regional courts have also become an important fora for seeking accountability against African states that unjustifiably infringe the right to freedom of expression.

This report maps the current landscape in respect of digital rights and online freedom of expression in East, West and Southern Africa. It looks at the trends regarding law and policy developments, as well as recent litigation, within these regions. The report focuses on 18 countries – 6 per region – and tracks the recent developments that have taken place in these countries.