AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
T HE internet is increasingly becoming ubiquitous, thereby enhancing the exercise and enjoyment of citizens’ rights to access to information, freedom of expression and the broader democratisation agenda.
Thanks to the internet and new digital technologies, journalists can now reach more audiences than ever before.
The long and short of it is that the citizens of Southern Africa now have access to information at the tip of their fingers, literally.
While the democratising effect of the internet and new technologies is beyond doubt, many governments are turning to surveillance, which threatens the very democratic rights that citizens seek to enjoy.
Protecting sources of confidential information is at the heart of journalism. UNESCO notes that privacy is a prerequisite for journalists to do their work and ensure access to fact-based and reliable information.
Privacy is necessary for journalists to communicate freely with sources, receive confidential information, investigate corruption, and guarantee their safety and that of their sources.
Therefore, it is worrying that governments and big corporations are working to undermine the right to privacy by acquiring advanced software to spy on citizens and, by extension, journalists.
The acquisition of digital surveillance tools and other forms of spyware will translate to fewer people willing to pass confidential information to journalists and this will undermine the right to access to information and ultimately affect democracy.
In Southern Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe are some of the countries that have been reported to have acquired sophisticated software to surveil their citizens.
These governments have so far not been transparent about how they intend to use these technologies in the surveillance of their citizens.
A common retort is that surveillance tools will aid in the fight against crime. However, there is need to strike a balance between fighting crime and protecting citizens’ rights, such as the right to privacy and to access information.
Building up on last year’s World Press Freedom Day, which recognised information as a public good, in 2022, we can also argue that transparency is a public good.
Governments should be transparent about what information they collect from citizens and what they intend to use it for. There should always be transparency and accountability backed by judicial oversight on the data that they collect to minimise infringements of citizens’ right to privacy.
Surveillance of citizens should not be indiscriminate and should serve a clear purpose. Among others, Principle 41 of the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa provides that states shall not engage in or condone acts of indiscriminate and untargeted collection, storage, analysis or sharing of a person’s communications.
In addition, the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance highlights that any form of surveillance should be guided by the principle(s) of legality, legitimate aim, necessity, adequacy and proportionality.
If left unchecked, digital surveillance of citizens and, by extension, of journalists is the latest threat to freedom of expression, freedom of the media, access to information and the right to privacy.