Citizen digitalization in Africa

February 20, 2023

Table of Contents

Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

This is part of a series on platforms and the press published jointly by CJR and the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy.


In recent years, citizens have become more integrated into the digital world as a result of the explosion of social media news platforms and portable communication gadgets.

The commonly used term citizen journalism implies community reporting of news. In contrast, citizen digitalization, which we introduce now, focuses more on participation on digital platforms for any outcome, including but not limited to journalism, e-commerce, and social mobilization.

The African states’ uneasiness

In essence, efforts to curtail online platforms is a direct assault on citizen digitalization and, by extension, freedom of expression. This does not come as a surprise in Africa, though, where governments are used to monopolizing citizen interactions through broadcasting services. 

The advent of online platforms has countered this abuse by opening up or liberalizing communication channels. These repressive regimes are still feeling the effects of the virtual revolution, and their attempts to maintain their iron grip on information have not been successful.

This curtailment is often accomplished through restrictive laws, policies, and lockdowns that sometimes lead to a complete shutdown of the internet in some countries.

Uganda is one example. It has come up with laws that tax the use of social media platforms. When that would not work, another law, the Computer Misuse Bill, was passed  in September 2022 to provide heavy penalties for “misuse of social media.”

Zimbabwe reportedly shut down the internet in 2019. The country’s leading ISP, ECONET, confirmed at the time that the shutdown of social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter resulted from a government order that came in response to protests that had turned fatal. 

Botswana watered down a surveillance law in February 2022 after a public outcry.

Economic impact

When freedom of expression is curtained, these countries not only are shut out from the world, but are also unable to communicate within themselves. While the target may be restricting expression, the fallout hits the common hawker who can’t sell their data bundles or airtime, as well as the buyer whose bundles would run out without use.

However, information has become so basic that even the high charges do not scare away consumers. The Botswana Gazette reported in 2020 that Botswana was among the top fourteen most expensive in data charges as per a survey conducted by, something that the regulator, the Botswana Communication Regulatory Authority (BOCRA), supported by the ISPs, refuted.


Personal data protection

Despite these laws that are supposed to protect personal data, the proliferation of digital platforms has made the monitoring process cumbersome. While official surveillance by the state can be easily advocated against, it is a challenge to fight the potential abuse of data by other data handlers, such as enterprises. Users are not immediately clear on what accepting cookies means, and even the privacy notices they are supposed to accept and agree to are too detailed for an average person to understand. As a result, users find themselves inadvertently accepting unsolicited membership to unknown platforms.

Alvin Ntibinyane is an investigative reporter from Botswana and currently a journalism professor at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario.