In this candid discussion with EUvsDisinfo, Marystella A. Simiyu addresses disinformation and information manipulation in Africa advocating for rights-based responses.
What is the state of affairs of information manipulation and interference in Africa? What are the latest trends?
Information manipulation and interference is not a novel phenomenon but one that has escalated in the digital age across the world including in Africa. Trends show that this information disorder is present in both offline and online networks, which also feed into each other. The spread of Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference (FIMI) and disinformation also escalates during periods that attract heightened public debate such as elections and incidences of unrest.
FIMI and disinformation flourish without strong support to civil society and independent journalism.
In this context, it is important to attract the public’s attention and awareness to the increasing enactment of laws that unreasonably and unjustifiably restrict freedom of expression under the pretext of addressing disinformation. This was one of the findings of LEXOTA (Laws on Expression Online: Tracker and Analysis). LEXOTA is an advocacy tool that examines laws and government actions on disinformation in sub-Saharan Africa and how they impact freedom of expression. The tool was developed as part of a multi-stakeholder initiative. It revealed that many laws evidently contradict international laws and standards through elements such as vague and broad provisions and disproportionate sanctions. These laws are often abused by authorities to stifle freedom of expression, particularly when the state and other powerful actors are the subject of criticism. Stakeholders that play critical oversight functions, such as journalists, human rights defenders, opposition candidates, and civil society are often the unfortunate targets of some of these laws and their misuse. There is a need to advocate for more rights-based approaches to regulating FIMI and disinformation in Africa that would address this challenge without limiting freedom of expression.
What is the real-life effect of information manipulation on African societies? How does this affect the stability and security of targeted countries?
Information manipulation gravely affects the information integrity necessary to guide public discourse and decision-making. When targeted towards minorities and vulnerable groups, such as women and sexual minorities, it may engender further discrimination of these groups and reduce their public participation. Targeted information manipulation towards public bodies or persons may impair public trust. Information manipulation in the context of democratic processes such as elections and referendums, compromises the development of an informed electorate that can meaningfully exercise its right to public and political participation. Furthermore, information manipulation may exacerbate tension and foment violence. During recent elections in Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe, reports on the spread of manipulated information revealed the threat posed to informed participation in democratic processes and the need for more proactive and rights-based approaches to combating it.
How would you assess the condition of freedom of speech and access to information in Africa? What is the core idea of The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa and how is it applied in practice throughout the continent?
As in other continents, many African countries are experiencing a downward trend in freedom of expression and access to information. Both state and non-state actors abuse human rights despite existing frameworks protecting freedom of expression and access to information such as the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa. The revised Declaration was adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2019 to reinforce the protection of freedom of expression and access to information as articulated under Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The latter is the foundational human rights instrument of the African continent.
The 2019 Declaration as well as other soft law instruments (such as the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa and the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa) are reflective of the evolving challenges and opportunities facing the exercise of freedom of expression and access to information including the impact of digital technologies. For example, Principle 22 (2) of the Declaration calls on states to repeal laws that criminalise false news. The criminalisation of the spread of false news is a reality in the legislation of many African countries that is misused to clamp down on freedom of expression. The Declaration is therefore an important reference point to guide state action on addressing contemporary challenges facing freedom of expression but in a right-based manner.
What are the main challenges and obstacles to the implementation of this Declaration?
The 2019 Declaration is a soft law instrument and is not legally binding. However, it expounds on Article 9 of the African Charter, which is binding on states that have ratified it. Thus, a strong argument can be made for its implementation.
However, the African Commission as well as other stakeholders have to raise more awareness about the Declaration. For example, none of the state reports submitted for consideration during the October to November 2023 77th Ordinary Session of the African Commission reported on compliance with the Declaration, in violation of Principle 43(4). Furthermore, the lack of political goodwill in many African countries to respect, protect, and fulfil freedom of expression and access to information threatens not only the implementation of the Declaration, but the other relevant normative frameworks.
Foreign information manipulation and interference is not mentioned in the declaration. Do you think it is an angle that should be taken into account in the future?
Indeed, the 2019 Declaration does not mention FIMI. However, the Declaration touches upon the connected aspect of decriminalising laws on false news. Given the impact of FIMI on the information and human rights ecosystem in Africa, there is a need for a more comprehensive standard-setting normative framework to guide state action. Importantly, this should take a human rights-based approach. The African Commission, particularly the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, has the requisite mandate to lead such a process.
 About the interviewee: Marystella A. Simiyu is a lawyer and an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya. Currently, she works as a programmes officer at the Expression, Information and Digital Rights Unit of the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. Marystella is also a final-year Doctor of Laws (LLD) candidate at the University of Pretoria, and a holder of a Master of Laws degree in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. Her research areas include international human rights law, constitutional law, elections, and digital rights.