Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Colonial legacy of surveillance: hidden world of surveillance technology in the African continent

African governments are increasing already-heavy spending on surveillance technologies, citing security concerns. But experts warn that this comes at the expense of citizen’s liberties and human rights, as well as the freedom of the press. Vast expenditures on surveillance and governments’ “secretive modus operandi” have been unearthed by a 2023 report by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), focusing on six countries. 

IDS researchers focused on five common internet interception technologies, which are: social media surveillance technologies; safe city technologies for surveillance of public space; and biometric ID surveillance technologies. 

“African governments are collectively spending as much as $1 billion per year on surveillance technologies,” the 167-page report says. “There is copious evidence that states in Africa are using surveillance technologies in ways that are unlawful and/or violate the fundamental human rights of citizens.”   

Of the six nations studied, Nigeria is the largest spender on surveillance technologies, most of which are acquired from major European suppliers, the report found. The nation, in which four in 10 citizens were living in poverty before the COVID-19 pandemic started, according to the World Bank, has spent more than $1 billion in a single year.  

“According to the evidence available to our researchers, Nigeria has procured more surveillance technologies than any other country on the continent,” the IDS report revealed. “The government is a customer of nearly every major surveillance technology company that we examined.”

‘Chilling effect on journalism’

With the rise in surveillance technologies used by African governments, journalists are working in an increasingly intimidating environment fraught with suspicion and are putting their lives in danger, the IDS report concluded. They are frequently regarded by the government and its allies as a threat to national security, and, in some cases, they are classified as “enemies of the state” and sometimes as “targets for elimination”, the report’s authors said. 

“Unfortunately, journalism suffers when these kinds of surveillance technologies are rolled out because they have a chilling effect on journalism practice and the enjoyment of media freedom,” says Dr. Admire Mare, a lecturer in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. They also make it difficult for journalists to talk freely with their sources. “Surveillance is being abused to target human rights defenders, journalists, opposition members, and trade unionists,” Dr. Mare adds.        

In 2020, Nigeria witnessed a wave of demonstrations against the country’s federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) which has been accused of unlawful arrest, torture, and even murder of civilians. Government surveillance has made it much easier for security forces to identify and target protesters under the guise of “combating security risks”, says Dr. Mare. “Nigeria is Africa’s largest customer, spending at least $2.7 billion on surveillance technologies in the last decade,” the IDS report concluded. “The technology has been used to spy on peaceful activists, opposition politicians, and journalists.”

‘They can find you, they can kill you’

The IDS report also found that, in Morocco, surveillance technology has been used against critics of the state, including journalists, despite the fact that the country’s constitution guarantees citizens the right to privacy of communication and freedom of speech. 

In 2012, at the peak of the Arab Spring protests demanding political reforms, the Moroccan state acquired an internet-spying technology from Hacking Team, an Italian company, to target protesters, including a citizen media outfit, Mamfakinch, meaning “we won’t give up”.

“Privacy International and Amnesty International have separately documented multiple cases of journalists and activists who have been directly targeted by government surveillance agencies and been subject to unwarranted detention,” the IDS report revealed. “Journalists and bloggers who are critical of the state are routinely subject to arrest without warrant and to long periods of pre-trial detention.” 

The Remote Control System, a powerful spy software, was used to compromise Mamfakinch’s communications, often sending strange emails with empty attachments. Eventually, the media outlet closed down- a victory for the regime but a loss for the citizens and for democracy. This, according to Amnesty International, was one of “the very first documented cases of computer attacks using European-made technology to repress and target human rights activists and journalists”.

Heidi Swart, Journalism and Research Coordinator for Intelwatch, says that surveillance adds huge pressure to the work that journalists do. “Surveillance can make it impossible to do one's work. If you cannot guarantee your source's anonymity, your story is over before it begins. But it also means that it is easier for the government to target you physically. If they can find you, they can intimidate, harm or kill you. For many journalists in Africa, this is a very real concern.” 

A highly secretive business 

As anticipated, the procurement of surveillance technology remains highly secretive. Of the six (A highly secretive business) the IDS researched, “Malawi has invested the least [...] in surveillance technologies and has the least well-developed legislative framework for data protection and privacy rights protection from unwarranted surveillance.” 

In 2022, Malawian investigative journalist Gregory Gondwe faced pressure to reveal his sources after reporting on corruption involving the Attorney General. Despite his refusal, he was warned that the information would be obtained by "other means." This incident was highlighted in a report, emphasizing the interrogation Gondwe underwent for exposing governmental corruption.

Meanwhile, Zambia, despite its democratic progress under President Hakainde Hichilema since 2021, continues to invest in surveillance technology under the pretext of developing "smart cities." The report notes a lack of transparency in Zambia's acquisition and use of such technologies.

Similarly, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Uganda are implementing smart city projects, equipped with surveillance cameras and automated license plate recognition systems. Dr. Mare warns that these developments pose significant threats to free speech and democracy. He explains that while these technologies are ostensibly for traffic control, they are often used for monitoring public protests and gatherings, infringing on privacy rights.

Surveillance technology exposes Western hypocrisy

Despite Europe's self-portrayal as a defender of democracy and human rights by confronting despotic regimes like Robert Mugabe, the report sheds light on the role Western countries play in supplying the technology. US, European, and Chinese companies are major providers of surveillance tools, potentially enabling human rights abuses. This begs questions about their ethical standing. 

The USA, with 122 surveillance companies, is a key player in this market, offering advanced AI-based internet and mobile phone interception systems.  “The USA leads in social media surveillance and the tracking of protests through companies such as Dataminr,” according to the report.

Major suppliers from China, the USA, Italy, France, the UK, Germany, and Israel include Huawei, ZTE, BIO-key, Agilis, Hacking Team, Thales, BAE Systems, Gamma (FinFisher), Dermalog, NSO Group (Pegasus and Circles), Cyberbit, and Elbit. These companies provide a range of surveillance technologies to African nations.

China, a longstanding ally of many African states with relationships dating back to the colonial era,  has been instrumental in implementing'safe city' projects across the continent. “China is providing billions of dollars in loans to African governments to buy its'safe city’ package of CCTV cameras with facial recognition and car license plate recognition. Out of the five countries in this report, four already have Chinese ‘safe city’ programs: Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi, and Zambia. Huawei and ZTE are the two Chinese companies delivering surveillance technologies, training, and support.”

Interestingly, companies traditionally known for arms manufacturing, like BAE Systems (UK), Elbit (Israel), and Thales (France), have shifted focus to surveillance technology, adapting to the reduced demand for arms.

Regarding the ethical implications of these transactions, Swart comments that, despite Europe's strong privacy regulations and human rights stance, the lucrative market for surveillance systems seems to override ethical considerations. The sale of public surveillance cameras, biometric identification systems, spyware, and border management technology continues, often without regard to the buyer's human rights record.

Colonial legacy of surveillance in Africa

South Africa, often seen as a beacon of democracy in Africa, is facing challenges with two proposed amendment bills that, if passed, could significantly impact citizens' rights to privacy, protest, freedom of movement, and association. This development is particularly concerning for Zimbabwean journalists who use South African phone numbers to avoid surveillance, as they could be affected by these changes.

These bills follow a landmark 2021 ruling by South Africa’s Constitutional Court aimed at protecting journalists and their sources from surveillance. This ruling was the culmination of a four-year legal battle by investigative journalist Sam Sole, who was surveilled while investigating a former president.

Swart highlights the inadequacy of South Africa's current surveillance legislation, particularly the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-related Act (RICA) of 2002. He notes that the Act was outdated even at its inception and that the recent RICA amendment bill is a response to the prolonged court struggle involving a journalist surveilled by state intelligence.

The report also reflects on the colonial legacy of surveillance in Africa. In Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, surveillance was rampant during colonization, often leading to harassment, intimidation, and even death to maintain minority rule. Post-independence, many African countries, including South Africa, under apartheid until 1994, continued these practices.

The IDS report states that colonial surveillance institutions and practices were often retained and expanded by post-independence governments. “Surveillance was introduced by colonisers, retained by liberators, and automated by today’s African leaders” Swart observes, and that little has changed, with basic human rights still being disregarded in what he describes as a continuation of colonial practices.

The threats of surveillance to human lives and journalists are huge and real, and to reduce the impact, journalists must expose them. To mitigate this, journalists must bring these issues to light. Dr. Mare emphasizes the importance of identifying and holding accountable the suppliers and purchasers of surveillance technologies. He advocates for the enforcement of human rights assessment standards in the sale of these technologies, ensuring they are not used to oppress people in the global south.

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review editorial stance

More Articles

Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
The Perils of Unverified News: A Case of Nonexistent Flotillas

Can you hide one thousand ships in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? I would say not. But some of my fellow journalists seem to believe in magic.  

Ilya
Ilya U Topper Published on: 16 Jan, 2024
In the Courtroom and Beyond: Covering South Africa's Historic Legal Case Against Israel at The Hague

As South Africa takes on Israel at the International Court of Justice, the role of journalists in covering this landmark case becomes more crucial than ever. Their insights and reporting bring the complexities of international law to a global audience.

Hala Ahed
Hala Ahed Published on: 12 Jan, 2024
Did the NYTimes Manipulate the Sexual Violence Allegations of October 7?

An in-depth examination of the New York Times's investigation of alleged sexual assaults by Hamas during the Israeli war on Gaza, highlighting ethical concerns, and the impact of its reporting on the victims' families. It questions the journalistic integrity of the Times, especially in the context of Western media's portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A picture of the Al Jazeera Media Institute's logo, on a white background.
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Published on: 7 Jan, 2024
Is The New York Times Reproducing Allegations of 'Sexual Violence' to Downplay Israeli Crimes?

The New York Times' report on alleged sexual violence by Palestinian militants raises profound concerns about discrepancies in key testimonies and a biased reporting that aligns with Israeli narratives and downplays Israeli crimes in Gaza.

Mohammad Zeidan
Mohammad Zeidan Published on: 31 Dec, 2023
Embedded journalism: Striking a balance between access and impartiality in war zones

The ethical implications of embedded journalism, particularly in the Israeli invasion of Gaza, raise concerns about the compromise of balance and independence in war coverage.

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 19 Dec, 2023
Through a Mexican lens: Navigating the intricacies of reporting in Palestine

A Mexican journalist's journey through the complexities of reporting on Palestine and gives tips on how to manage this kind of coverage.

Témoris Grecko
Témoris Grecko Published on: 10 Dec, 2023
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Critique of German media's handling of Gaza Conflict

The German media's coverage of the Gaza conflict has been criticized for being biased, presenting a distorted view of the conflict, focusing only on the Israeli perspective, and downplaying the suffering of Palestinians. This biased reporting undermines the media's role as an objective source of information and fails to provide a balanced view of the conflict.

AJR Contributor Published on: 16 Nov, 2023
How the New York Times fuelled a crackdown on journalists in India

Vague reporting and a piece ‘laden with innuendo’ by the New York Times gave Indian authorities the excuse they needed to crack down on news website Newsclick

Meer Faisal
Meer Faisal Published on: 31 Oct, 2023
Journalists feel the pain, but the story of Gaza must be told  

People don’t always want to hear the historical context behind horrifying events, resorting even to censorship, but the media must be free to provide it

Aidan
Aidan White Published on: 30 Oct, 2023
Queen Rania is absolutely right - Western media’s double standards on Gaza

Why does international media use loaded and dehumanising language about the Palestinians when reporting on the Israeli bombardment of 2.2 million people in Gaza?

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 27 Oct, 2023
'War propaganda' - Brazil’s media has abandoned journalistic standards over Gaza

Brazil’s mainstream media, in its unwavering support for Israel, is out of step with public and social media responses to the bombardment of Gaza

Bruno
Bruno Lima Rocha Beaklini Published on: 25 Oct, 2023
‘Emotional truth’ is not a cover for fabricating stories

Comedians who engage with the news should not be free to ignore the rules of ethical journalism

Akanksha
Akanksha Singh Published on: 16 Oct, 2023
Get this straight, Western media: Palestinians aren’t sub-human

Dehumanisation of Palestinians is as central to Israel’s war strategy as the deadly missiles it wields

Mitrovica
Andrew Mitrovica Published on: 10 Oct, 2023
Victims of the Mediterranean: ‘Migrants’ or ‘Refugees’?

The term ‘migrant’ insufficient to describe victims of the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea; it dehumanises these people and is a failure of journalism

A picture of the author, Mohammad Ahdad.
Mohammad Ahdad Published on: 2 Oct, 2023
Why is a Western news organisation funding propaganda in India?

ANI, the world’s largest source of Indian news, receives funding from Thomson-Reuters, despite widespread condemnation for its misinformation about Muslims

MM
Morley Musick Published on: 18 Sep, 2023
How do we determine 'newsworthiness' in the digital age?

The relentless flow of news in the digital age has re-shaped the parameters by which we decide what is 'news' and what is not

Muhammad Khamaiseh Published on: 11 Sep, 2023
‘Focus on the story, not the storyteller’ - the dilemma of a diaspora journalist

When reporting on their homelands, diaspora journalists walk a fine line between emotional connection and objective storytelling

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 4 Sep, 2023
Why does Arab media fail so badly at covering refugee issues?

Arabic media discourse on refugees and migrants frequently aligns too closely with the Western narrative, often spreading fear of migrants while emphasising the burdens of asylum

A picture of the author, Ahmad Abu Hamad
Ahmad Abu Hamad Published on: 28 Aug, 2023
What does Zimbabwe’s new ‘Patriot Bill’ mean for journalists?  

As Zimbabwe heads into elections this week, a new law dubbed the ‘Patriot Bill’ will further criminalise journalism

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 21 Aug, 2023