African climate activists use online tech tools to speak out safely

Tuesday February 07 2023
Demonstrations against Eacop in Uganda

Activists demonstrating against EACOP IN Kampala on Wednesday February 22, 2023. PHOTO | NMG


When Tanzanian climate activists posed as delivery couriers to get into energy firm Total Energies’ Dar es Salaam office and hand over a placard against a new oil pipeline, they were so fearful of reprisals that 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 was 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, using strategies such as anonymized digital petitions and 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 Tanzanian investigative journalist Azory Gwanda as an example.

Tanzania media control

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


Current Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu lifted a six-year bar in January on opposition political rallies as well as protests and lifted bans on four newspapers under a programme of reforms. But Peter says they are still nervous about rights protection.

Read: President Samia to address press freedom forum

“Things don’t change that quickly,” Peter said.

The placard protest at Total Energies in May 2022 was part of an international campaign against the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline (Eacop).

Development groups say the project will generate 34 million tons of carbon emissions annually, with an estimated 14,000 households at risk of losing their land.

But Total Energies, the biggest shareholder, has said 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. Total Energies, however, did not respond to emailed questions.

Total Energies Uganda

Total Energies employees work during construction at a well pad inside Murchison Falls National Park in western Uganda on February 22, 2023.

An online awakening

The Tanzanian Partnership for Green Future worked with US-based climate campaign group to gather almost 10,000 names on a petition opposing Eacop. With many Tanzanians wary of speaking out, did not make supporters’ details public.

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

But as activism grows online, so does surveillance.

Read: Cyber threats spike over festive season

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

The report said internet users in 53 nations were arrested, imprisoned or detained for political or social content.

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 percent believed their online activity had been subject to surveillance.

Protection tips

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.

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.

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

The National Bureau for Non-Governmental Organizations.

A screen grab of the Ugandan National Bureau for Non-Governmental Organizations website with the page containing the notice halting operations of 54 NGOs. PHOTO | NMG

A spokesman for the Ugandan internal affairs ministry has previously denied allegations that the government is attempting to “stifle climate activists”.

“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,” said Edwin Mumbere, the founder of Centre for Citizens Conserving the Environment and Management charity.

Read: Uganda court quashes law used against critics

“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.

He also said when visiting those communities, they temporarily exited group chats that may be infiltrated, and used encrypted messaging service Signal to share location details with trusted allies who could raise the alarm if something went wrong.

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.