Are Governments ready to embrace Freedom Online?

Last week saw Internet stakeholders from across the world meet in Kenya’s capital Nairobi for the second annual Freedom Online Conference, aimed at discussing ways in which freedom of expression by online users can be guaranteed.

A number of speakers expressed their sentiments andexperiences from different perspectives, just to demonstrate how freedom online was either being promoted or hindered by different regimes across the world.

One thing that came out clearly was that most governments from the member states of the Freedom Online Coalition had their own set of reservations on how much freedom to allow online, as much as they were trying to promote freedom of expression, as a basic human right.

For example, the Kenyan government, represented The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications, Dr. Bitange Ndemo, enlightened the participants on the different measures they were taking to ensure that its citizens access Internet and use it freely without many restrictions.

Dr. Bitange said, “The Constitution of Kenya provides under the bill of rights for the right to freedom of expression. The Kenya government has therefore put in place policy and legislative frameworks to ensure that these rights are realized fully by all.”

However, this is not the case in most of the other member states represented in the conference. Other participants shared on how their governments were censoring the Internet, something that was contravening the coalition’s building pillars.

For example, Endalk, a blogger from Ethiopia, shared on his experiences in his quest to fight for freedom of expression online in the country. He said that Internet in Ethiopia was highly expensive and highly censored.

“The only Internet service provider is a government controlled firm, Ethio Telecom, something that has made Internet access hard,” Endalk said.

Internet users in Ethiopia stood at 622,122 users as of December 2011, representing a mere 0.7% of the country’s population.

“We cannot talk about Freedom Online when we do not have access,” Endalk expressed.

This is just one of the many examples of the statements made at the Conference that took place in Nairobi from September 6 to 7.

One question that begs to be answered is, why are many governments still hesitant to allow for freedom of expression online and access to Internet, in as much as they understand the importance that ICT plays in the economic and social development of countries?

The Freedom Online coalition has got only 17 member countries, a clear indication of the hesitance among governments to fully embrace online freedom.

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