Eastern Africa: Report highlights monumental resilience for freedom of expression

Eastern Africa: Report highlights monumental resilience for freedom of expression - Transparency

A young artist paints a wall to show the importance of protest at the #FreeToProtest concert in Dandora Social Justice Centre on 3rd August 2019

Today, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa publishes its annual report, which highlights many of the successes and challenges to freedom of expression in Eastern Africa in 2019.

“2019 has been a turbulent year for free speech. We have seen many incidents of violence by security forces, internet shutdowns, attacks on journalists and activists. Some countries introduced laws that were meant to silence civil society,” said Mugambi Kiai, Regional Director.

“But this year also showed how much resilience people in Eastern Africa have, and their determination to make themselves heard, in the streets and online. Governments can no longer ignore the people.”

Another positive development is that some Eastern African countries’ courts have pushed back against violations of freedom of expression. ARTICLE 19 was involved in successful legal challenges, such as against abortion restrictions and against a provision of the Kenya Information and Communication Act which restricted free speech.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights continued to play a critical role in the ensuring freedom of expression. In November 2019, it approved the Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, which expands freedom of expression protections online and strengthens the right to privacy and data protection.

“These principles are critical to ensure free speech and access to information in the challenging times we are currently living in. Many governments are using the Coronavirus outbreak as an opportunity to further entrench repressive measures. Increased surveillance, restrictions on free expression and information, and limits on public participation are becoming increasingly common.”

Five-point agenda for change

ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa is calling on all governments in Eastern Africa to do more to ensure freedom of expression is realised. We urge governments to commit to implementing the following five-point agenda for change:

  1. Ensure access to information:
  • Legislation that contradicts access to information should be repealed.
  • Oversight and enforcement bodies should receive adequate support to enable them fulfill their mandate.
  • State held information should be disclosed as required by law, including leveraging on the use of new technologies to ensure that certain categories of information are made available and accessible to the public without request.
  1. Legislate the right to protest:
  • Legal frameworks on public order and protest should fully comply with international human rights law and standards on policing, in particular the African Commission Guidelines on Policing of Assemblies, the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
  • Law enforcement officers should fully comply with these legal frameworks.
  1. Expand Civic space:
  • Take measures to expand civic space and counter government censorship.
  • Ensure the freedom to protest.
  • Commit to refrain from clamping down on civil society and dissenting voices and introducing laws that regulate online and offline civic space.
  1. Prioritize Internet access:
  • Internet connectivity in rural, un-served and underserved areas should be ensured.
  • Public-private partnerships with companies willing to roll out innovative connectivity solutions should be formed.
  • The total amount of funds collected under existing universal access mechanisms should be publicly disclosed
  • All implemented projects should be reported in annual transparency reports.
  1. Regulate online content:
  • Online expression should be encouraged by replacing punitive and disproportionate criminal sanctions contained in ‘fake news’, hate speech and disinformation legislative and regulatory frameworks, with civil penalties.
  • The following laws should be amended:
    • Kenya’s Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act (2018),
    • Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act (2011),
    • Tanzania’s Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations (2018),
    • Ethiopia’s Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation.



In Eastern Africa, the following trends are contributing to the erosion of freedom of expression:

  • Violence by security forces;
  • Authorities shutting down the Internet around protests and elections;
  • Threats, attacks, and lawfare against land-rights defenders;
  • Ageing leaders pushing through constitutional term limits;
  • Censorship of political hip-hop lyrics;
  • Politicians smearing and attacking journalists – sometimes with deadly results;
  • Legislation restricting the activities of civil society organisations (CSOs); and
  • Violent oppression, sometimes encouraged by government leaders, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) communities.

Eastern Africa has the one of the worst scores for freedom of expression in the world

  • The Global Expression Report is an unique and innovative metric that enables us to measure freedom of expression for each country in the world, across our five pillars of freedom of expression Civic space, Digital, Media, Protection and Transparency (also known as the Expression Agenda (XpA)
  • Eastern Africa region has some of the lowest XpA scores in Africa – and some of the worst in the world.
  • On a scale of 1, based on data from 2018, Eritrea scored 0.01; South Sudan 0.02; Burundi 0.06 and Sudan 0.09.

ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa works across the grassroots, national, regional, and international levels to engage with governments and ensure they respect, protect and fulfil freedom of expression.

In Kenya, ARTICLE 19 launched the campaign #FreeToProtest around every person’s constitutional right to protest. The organisation found that the right to protest is still undermined by restrictive legislation on public order, police brutality, and negative perceptions of protesters perpetuated by the mainstream media. People are targeted, prosecuted, and attacked by the police merely for exercising their democratic and constitutional rights.