Mozambique’s third UPR cycle and the need to improve its digital rights protection

Discussing the state of freedom of expression and digital rights in Mozambique as it comes under review during the 38th session of the UPR.

Tomiwa Ilori, Uproar

1 September 2021

Mozambique has ratified the major international human rights instruments including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As part of the various mechanisms introduced to monitor the rights protected under international human rights treaties, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the United Nations Human Rights Council (the Council) in 2006.

The UPR is the unique mechanism used to assess the human rights records of all UN member states. Carried out every four to five years, a State under review (SuR) submits a report which is assessed together with other reports submitted by other stakeholders in the State including independent experts and civil society organisations. The assessment is carried out by the UPR working group consisting of 47 UN member states but can be joined by other UN member states for such assessment.

The goal of the UPR is primarily to ensure that UN member states fulfill their human rights obligations under various international human rights treaties and systems. In doing this, member states are assessed based on various thematic aspects of human rights including children’s rights, rights of persons living with disability, women’s rights and many others.

However, an important thematic aspect of human rights that is beginning to gain traction is digital rights. Simply put, these rights are those enjoyed through the use or non-use of digital technologies. For the purpose of assessment at the UPR, these rights have been categorised into four broad categories namely freedom of expression and opinion; freedom of information and censorship of content; right to equal access and opportunity; and right to data protection and privacy on the Internet.

Mozambique has gone through three reviews since 2011. In terms of Mozambique’s performance at the UPR, its first review on 28 March 2011 at the Council’s seventeenth session received no specific recommendation on digital rights out of the 169 recommendations made by 52 UN member states. It also did not receive any general recommendation with respect to any of the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and association and assembly.

At the Council’s 32nd session on 12 April 2016 where Mozambique’s report was reviewed for the second time, it received 210 recommendations from 94 UN member states. Only nine of these recommendations referred to the right to freedom of expression, the press and access to information. Six of these recommendations were accepted by Mozambique.

At its most recent review at the 38th session of the Council which was held on 4 May 2021, Mozambique received 266 recommendations. Out of these recommendations, 22 were on the right to freedom of expression, protection of journalists and human rights freedoms and media freedom. This marked the highest number of recommendations received by Mozambique at the UPR since its first review. Some of the recommendations received include those from Spain, Latvia, Netherlands, Ghana, France, Czech Republic, Uruguay, USA, Sweden, Slovenia, Norway, New Zealand, Malawi, Italy, Ireland, Germany, Canada, Iceland, Bulgaria, Iceland, Austria and Australia.

For example, France recommended that Mozambique should ‘guarantee the freedom of expression, association and assembly and the protection of human rights defenders; guarantee the freedom of the press and take all measures so that all journalists may carry out their work independently and without fear of reprisals.’

Bulgaria also noted in one of its recommendations that Mozambique should ‘ensure that the right to freedom of expression and freedom of press is respected including on the Internet space and maintain a positive environment for the work of independent media and journalists.’ Canada equally called for the need for Mozambique to respect the right to freedom of expression by recommending that it should ‘ensure the protection of freedom of expression provided for under international human rights law are reflected in the texts of new laws governing media and broadcasting and that they are respected in practice.’

With respect to media law reforms, Norway recommended that Mozambique ‘ensures that the on-going revisions and reforms of media laws protect freedom of expression and media freedoms, promote media pluralism and are based on stakeholder consultations.’ Sweden also toed the same line in its recommendation by stating that Mozambique should ‘redraft laws on social communications and the law on broadcasting to guarantee the freedom of expression including by increasing the space for dissent and discussion and ensure an enabling space for everyone to enjoy these rights.’

With a two-pronged recommendation on the right to freedom of expression, the United States recommended that Mozambique should ‘allow independent press and civil society access to report on conflict regions and uphold Mozambique’s domestic and international obligations and commitments to respect the freedom of expression including those of the members of the press.’ In terms of access to justice and protection of the press, it recommended that Mozambique should ‘investigate and hold accountable those responsible for violent attacks against members of the press.’

These are some of the highlights of the recommendations received by Mozambique which also mirror some of the concerns of local stakeholders who work on the protection of digital rights both in and outside Mozambique. This can be seen in the submission made by three civil society organisations for review at the recent 38th session. The organisations, namely the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Small Media, Fórum das Associações Moçambicanas das Pessoas com Deficiência (FAMOD) and the Associação de Cegos e Amblíopes de Moçambique highlighted a number of challenges being faced by digital rights in Mozambique to include low Internet penetration, attacks on journalists and systemic threats against the right to data protection and privacy.

In its recommendations on how to surmount these challenges, the submission made five recommendations including the need to increase capacity building on the right to information law, the repeal of provisions of the COVID-19 Decree which have been found to be non-compliant with international human rights standards; the need to improve access to justice mechanisms for media practitioners; improving Internet access especially for vulnerable groups by optimising the Universal Service Fund; and ensuring the enactment of a data protection law.

In summary, Mozambique should consider accepting the recommendations made to it by various UN member states and other stakeholders at the recently concluded review. This is because the protection of human rights online is no longer a luxury, especially when the impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 on human development is critically considered. Therefore, in protecting these rights, Mozambique should ensure that its policies on digital rights protection are rights-respecting and multi-stakeholder in its approach in order to have an improved human rights record especially towards its next review at the UPR.

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