Journalists and activists across the world have progressively become reliant on the internet and digital platforms for a number of things ranging from infrastructure, organization to the intensification of their critical work.
The open and accessible design of the internet, nevertheless, has made it susceptible, and it has become apparent that those challenging authority and power need to practice digital security.
It’s under this context that on November 11 and 12 the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (Cipesa) organized a training of trainers (ToT) for 15 purposively selected journalists and human rights defenders at Eureka hotel in Kampala.
The main purpose of the training was to expand the network of individuals and organizations that offer digital security training and support to journalists, activists, and human rights defenders and organizational security assessment.
Indeed, many of the participants insisted on the need to protect themselves against state-inspired attacks online as they being key to why they accepted to attend the training.
Polycarp Kalokwera, a journalist attached to the Nation Media Group (NMG) based in the northern city of Gulu, said “We went through a lot during election time since I was targeted by the state. I need to get more tactics on how I can protect myself while I’m online and also while offline.”
To the others, what was most pressing to them was online gender-based, which they said is rampant with the state seemingly uninterested in hunting the preparators.
“There is a lot of cyber violence against women online but the government seems to be going after people its critics like Dr Stella Nyanzi,” said Clare Muhindo, an online content producer at the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME).
In the last six years, a number of Ugandan female celebrities, including Judith Heard, Fabiola Anita, Martha Kagimba popularly known as Martha Kay, Cindy Sanyu, Sanyu Robina Mweruka, Desire Luzida, Zari Hassan, Anne Nakawombe alias Anne Nixons, and herbalist Sylvia Namutebi aka Maama Fina have fallen victims to this behavior, ostensibly by their rejected lovers or people out to blackmail them for money.
Brian Byaruhanga, a facilitator from Defenders Protection Initiative (DPI) and a digital security executive, listed the use of antivirus, encryption, and backups among the key things the trainees could use to protect their data from possible threats while working online.
To limit virus attacks, Byaruhanga implored the participants to only install paid-for anti-virus software.
“There is a habit of installing unpaid for anti-virus, but it has a lot of disadvantages as it can’t give you comprehensive protection. When you use a free antivirus program, you're only getting a basic level of protection for your computer so it means you can be attacked.”
For data protection, Byaruhanga emphasized to the trainees to always back up their data such that even if they lose their gadgets they can easily recover the information.
“I do a lot of photography and every photo I take is automatically saved on google photos,” said Oliver Nakatudde a journalist with Uganda Radio Network, a subscription news agency.
“But how safe is our information. Can’t it be leaked?” In 2018, Google was forced to shut down Google Plus, its social networking platform after it discovered a security susceptibility that exposed the private data of up to 500,000 users and the trainers were asking if their information could be safe.
“You just have to trust Google...As long as you are using the internet your information will always be susceptible to leaks.” said Byaruhanga. He further advised against clicking on unsolicited links, saying these are used by cybercriminals and state actors for phishing - a fraudulent attempt to obtain sensitive information or data, such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details, by disguising as a trustworthy entity.
Byaruhanga cited the classic example of Jeff Bezos, the American billionaire, whose mobile phone was scythed in 2018 after receiving a WhatsApp message that had ostensibly been sent from the personal account of Mohammed Bin Salman the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
“Somebody can send you a message and once you click it, you give that person access to your passwords meaning they get hold of all your information,” Byaruhanga said.
Edrine Wanyama, Cipesa’s legal officer introduced the trainees to the law and policy on digital rights and internet freedom in Africa.
Wanyama explained that Uganda’s freedom of expression laws are adopted from Article 19(2) of the international covenant on civil and political rights 1966 international covenant on civil and political rights (ICCPR). The covenant, he said, was it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 19, 1966, and it came into force on March 23, 1976.
Article 19 (2) of the ICCPR which is crucial to freedom of expression states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”
While internet penetration of the world stands at 62.9 per cent, Wanyama said, in Africa it's at only 39.3 percent with rural communities where the majority of Africans live, struggling with internet access.
The cost of the internet in Africa and particularly in Uganda is still high, Wanyama said. Whilst the government withdrew the unpopular over the top (OTT) tax, it replaced it in July this year with a 12 per cent tax on data packages, increasing the total tax on internet use to 30 per cent after factoring in the prevailing 18 per cent value-added tax.
“Accessing the internet is critical following the emergency of Covid-19,” Sandra Aceng, the information sharing & networking officer at Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET). “But the government has made it now hard with first OTT and now a tax on data. Internet is way too expensive for ordinary Ugandans yet it’s critical to their lives."