Digital rights are under threat around the world, from governments and outside actors. But there are signs of hope.
Digital rights are human rights. The #speakup barometer experts agree that threats to digital rights are the biggest factor limiting online participation. Mohammad Najem from SMEX in Lebanon is adamant that, "We see digital rights as human rights. So we want to make sure that human rights are sustained online as much as offline." Vivian Affoah, senior program officer for Freedom of Expression Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in Ghana, takes a similar view. "There are a lot of issues with women’s rights online. I think that in some ways the situation is improving, but it is a problem that started offline. If we could solve it offline, the impact would be seen online," she said. Ultimately, the digital sphere has become – as Geoffrey Ssebaggala, executive director of witnessradio.org in Uganda puts it – the "space we all need to claim; we need to fight for it."
Safeguarding digital rights, freedom of expression, digital privacy and curtailing government surveillance and misinformation is impossible without an awareness of the issues – both for citizens and the journalists who inform them. According to Vita Volodovska from the Digital Security Lab in Ukraine, "People do not understand why they should stand up for their digital rights." In response, her NGO has started to cooperate with "offline" human rights defenders in order to build broader coalitions within civil society – a tactic also taken up by groups in other countries. In Lebanon and Pakistan, a major issue is blocked websites, a problem Mohammad Najem from SMEX wants to challenge in the courts – to push back against government censorship and "raise awareness about digital privacy." In Kenya, "the next frontier is about getting the general public to contribute to policy interventions and the national conversation on digital rights issues," says Shitemi Khamadi from the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE). That being said, Ephraim Percy Kenyanito also believes that "having digital security and digital rights be part of the school curriculum would be a major step."
In Colombia, Pedro Vaca, executive director of the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) worries specifically about journalists’ digital security: "They are definitely not prepared, although their daily work is associated with great vulnerability." In several countries, including Myanmar, Pakistan, and Lebanon, vaguely worded laws allow for government censorship and the intimidation of journalists. By engaging in digital self-defense, journalists not only protect themselves, but also their audience. "If you want to have a thriving democracy, then it is about empowering the media to make sure that they have the power to give the voice to the people to express their opinion. We have to make sure that the ethics of journalism are being respected," said Ghanaian journalist Kent Mensah. While the challenges to digital rights are often immense, our experts insist that a pro-active approach that encourages all segments of society to be informed about their rights and to fight for them is the only way forward.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer