Regulating the digital space in DRC

Following an increasing number of attacks on people’s privacy online, repeated Internet cuts and the spread of hate speech on social media networks, RNW Media’s Habari RDC decided to organise a debate on the need for regulating the digital space in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In bringing together young people, government representatives and cybersecurity experts to debate the future of the Internet in DRC, Habari is increasingly positioning itself as an influential player in the Congolese debate.

The DRC does not currently have a law regulating social activities or interactions on the Internet. The few laws that do control the digital space in the country are mostly economic in nature and fail to include the protection of human rights online. Yet other laws simply no longer fit the current political, cultural and economic climate in the DRC, which can have potentially severe consequences for members of the public.

Restricting ‘rumours’
Trésor Kalonji, social media editor and writer for Habari RDC, explained how a law from 1940, criminalising the spread of ‘rumours’ is increasingly being used to restrict the spread of information and freedom of expression.

“An MP from the opposition was arrested two years ago for sharing an image (which turned out to be fake) via WhatsApp as a result of this law. Previous legal decisions could turn out to take away the freedom from average net surfers when judges are bound to base their judgement on these precedents.”

A number of journalists and young online activists have also been arrested for spreading ‘rumours’, according to one of Habari’s blog posts on the topic.

Both risks and benefits
Despite political and public acknowledgement that there is a need for regulation of the digital space, there is still a lack of agreement on what exactly needs to be regulated and how. According to Kalonji, many people expressed their wish to see the 1940 law on the spread of ‘rumours’ revised. But many have also discussed the need for measures that can identify and suppress trolls in order to reduce hate speech online. And, he says, the debate is difficult to separate from the local, cultural context:

“There is a certain ambiguity between the freedom of expression and incitement to hate speech. We have a law that criminalises tribalism, but it dates back to the 1960s, when the Internet did not exist. I have attended debates where the meaning attached to emojis was different. For instance: can you compare the combination of the red, angry emoji with a knife to a death threat? If someone combines an emoji of a couple of the same sex with one that vomits, is it a homophobic act?”

The young people who attended the debate organised by Habari were also divided: on the one hand, they recognised the need for new and updated laws on the digital space. Yet, many were also concerned that such laws could restrict freedom of expression and threaten human rights if politicians were to use them as a tool of repression.

An opportunity for Habari
The Congolese government, according to Kalonji, does not currently have a coherent approach to the issue at hand:

“The telecommunications regulatory authority, which also regulates the Internet, often appears to act like a maverick by setting arbitrary flat rates. At other times, in order to increase their revenue, the Ministry of Finances suddenly decides to pump up the Internet cost without any prior consultation of the relevant companies.”

In 2019, the Congolese government outlined a National Digital Plan which aimed to make the country’s digital space a lever for integration, good governance, economic growth and social progress. The plan also included the creation of a National Agency for the security of digital information systems, which would bring together the country’s digital experts to discuss future regulations.

Talk but no action
However, that National Agency is still to be created. During the Habari debate, Tony Mwaba, a National Deputy who has proposed a law on cyber security and cybercrime to the Congolese Parliament, reminded panellists that the government has yet to comply with the law by creating the agency.

After Habari’s debate, the President’s advisor on digital affairs promised to invite Lemien Sakalunga, editor and coordinator of Habari, to discuss the framework of the National Digital Plan further, which would allow Habari to situate itself as an influential player in the debate on Internet Governance in the DRC. However, Sakalunga is still waiting for an official invitation.

Taking the initiative
Rather than waiting for the government to take action, Habari is turning the apparent standstill to their advantage. Sakalunga and Kalonji are setting up a group together with a number of other Congolese bloggers to develop an advocacy strategy:

“That way, we can establish ourselves as a legitimate expert and discussion partner in order to influence the government’s debates”, explains Kalonji.

In this context, increasing Internet costs are of particular concern to the Habari team, says Kalonji, as they rely on their online channels to allow young people to engage with each other:

We realised that whenever the Internet costs go up, fewer people engage with our online platforms. So advocating for a more affordable Internet is not only a way to strengthen our position as a stakeholder in this whole ecosystem, but also to facilitate the access of our users to our platforms, as well as their online interactions.