African climate activists fight online surveillance


Climate campaigners in countries such as Tanzania and Uganda are turning to digital privacy tools to help them speak out safely. — AP

JOHANNESBURG: When Tanzanian climate activists posed as delivery couriers to get into energy firm TotalEnergies’ Dar es Salaam office and hand over a placard against a new oil pipeline, they were so fearful of reprisals they had a getaway car waiting.

“We asked (a secretary) to take it to the person in charge, and then we left right away because it could be super dangerous. That’s how we do our work here,” said Rehema Peter, founder of the Tanzanian Partnership for Green Future climate group.

That same fear has led the group to do much of their work online, with climate activists in Tanzania and beyond turning to strategies from anonymised digital petitions to secure messaging apps to speak out safely.

“Activists have to be strategic about protesting ... or you may find you disappear or are put in prison,” said Peter, citing the unsolved 2017 disappearance of investigative journalist Azory Gwanda as an example.

The Tanzanian government and police service did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Online climate activism is on the rise in Africa – a continent that draws mining and oil companies to its rich mineral reserves.

Tanzania tightened control of the media and civil society after the election of former President John Magufuli in 2015, whose administration shut down newspapers, arrested opposition leaders and activists, and restricted political rallies.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who came to office after Magufuli died in March 2021, lifted a six-year bar in January on opposition political rallies and protests, and lifted bans on four newspapers under a programme of reforms.

“We are still nervous about our rights being protected,” said Peter.

“Things don’t change that quickly.”

Oil pipeline campaign

The placard protest at TotalEnergies in May 2022 was part of an international campaign against the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), which would ship crude from Lake Albert in Uganda to a port on Tanzania's Indian Ocean coast.

Development groups say the Ugandan oil fields development it will serve will generate 34 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually, with an estimated 14,000 households at risk of losing their land.

TotalEnergies, the biggest shareholder, did not immediately respond to emailed questions.

TotalEnergies has said on its website that the project is consistent with its environmental commitments, and it will create a net positive impact on biodiversity by limiting the oil development's footprint and investing in conservation projects.

The Tanzanian Partnership for Green Future worked with US-based climate campaign group 350.org to gather almost 10,000 names on a petition opposing EACOP.

With many Tanzanians wary of speaking out, 350.org collected supporters' details but did not make them public, instead simply displaying a tally of the total number who had signed up.

“If we are strategic about protecting identities then the online space can give us safety and support,” said Peter.

Digital privacy toolkits

As activism grows online, so does surveillance.

The Freedom on the Net 2022 report by US-based nonprofit Freedom House found 11 out of 70 countries it examined had introduced measures to increase online surveillance or reduce anonymity last year.

Internet users in 53 nations were arrested, imprisoned or detained for political or social content, it said.

A survey of about 50 climate activists by tech rights charity Privacy International last year found that all agreed tech was essential to their work, but 59% believed their online activity had been subject to surveillance.

In response, the survey lead Laura Lazaro Cabrera created an online guide to help activists avoid being spied on.

The tips include restricting personal information shared online, using secure phone messaging apps such as Signal that encrypt message data, and using two-factor authentication to protect against hacks.

Users can also use virtual private networks (VPNs) – an encrypted connection that shields the user’s identity – to access blocked websites and browse anonymously.

Activists should avoid revealing their location online through hashtags and photos, the guide advised, including through photo data that is often uploaded together with images.

“Even as the surveillance tools become ever more sophisticated ... people are catching up,” said Cabrera.

‘It’s important to share these stories’

In Uganda, environmental groups are also taking steps to protect their online security as they take to the internet to protest.

Climate campaigners say they are being targeted under laws governing NGOs and public meetings under a tightly-controlled system led by President Yoweri Museveni since 1986.

Last year the government suspended the operations of dozens of NGOs including climate groups, and police have arrested environmental activists protesting the EACOP pipeline.

The Ugandan police force did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokesman for the internal affairs ministry has previously denied allegations that the government is attempting to “stifle climate activists”.

Edwin Mumbere, the founder of Center for Citizens Conserving the Environment and Management (CECIC) charity, said they use VPNs to protect themselves from being surveilled online.

“Mostly it is difficult to prove when you are spied on. But we know it is happening. Sometimes during phone calls we hear third party background noise and we know our phones are being tapped,” he said.

The group uses social media to share interviews they have carried out with people impacted by mining, pollution, overfishing and EACOP expansion plans – but will often not include their name or face in the recordings, he said.

When visiting those communities they temporarily exit group chats that may be infiltrated, and use encrypted messaging service Signal to share location details with trusted allies who can raise the alarm if something goes wrong, he said.

Despite the risks, he said online platforms are a key part of their campaigning.

“It’s important to share these stories online so that other people can know what’s really happening,” he said. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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