On March 28, 2018, the government of Chad shut down social media platforms such Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp without any explanation. It’s been six months (September 2, 2018) and the people of Chad continue to live in suspense, not knowing when access to these platforms will be restored. The African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) as part of its digital rights and Internet freedom advocacy shares with you Salim Azim Assani’s perspective on how the shutdown is affecting lives in the country. Assani is a member of RFI’s platform of French bloggers, Mondoblog and a major actor in Chad’s digital space. Below is an overview of incidents of network disruptions recorded in Chad over the past two years:
Chadian internet users (netizens) continue to face censorship
If Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were classrooms where users were students, Chadians would certainly be among the worst students, September 2, 2018 marking exactly six months of absence. This situation arises out of censorship for which nobody (neither the government nor the internet providers) would take responsibility. Meanwhile, Chad remains inexplicably cut off these social networks.
First of all, far from being a widely used tool, Internet access is a luxury in Chad. Only 5% of Chadians have access to the Internet with a quality that leaves much to be desired despite the fact that the two main providers, Tigo and Airtel, have switched to 4G technology. It is clear that the authorities are aware of the wide gap between Chad and the digital world, for which reason large-scale projects have been planned. These include, the creation of an African Center for Information Technologies (CATI), the construction of a three-way fibre optic interconnection linking Cameroon and Sudan as well as the Trans-Sahara – Algeria through Niger. Unfortunately, in contradiction with all these great ambitions, some unknown hands are censoring the internet, making the most popular social media platforms among Chadians inaccessible.
Network disruption in Chad following demonstrations against the dissemination of a video of a rape victim
On February 18, 2016, access to electronic message services such as Gmail, Yahoo and Ooutlook.com were disconnected, following wide circulation of the video of sexual assault of Zouhoura, a young high school student. The circulation, which was initiated by the attackers, drew widespread protests across the country. The head of state for the first time, took to social media to condemn the barbaric incident. Unfortunately, access to social media platforms were cut a day after his intervention. Nevertheless, it must be noted that before the censorship related to the Zouhoura demonstrations occurred, some information networks were already targeted. Makaïla’s blog as well as online newspapers like Tchadinfos and Tchadactuel had been censored even if they were reinstated later.
Internet censorship during elections, an African ritual
From 9 to 11 April 2016, there was a complete Internet and mobile services blackout throughout the presidential elections. The networks were fully restored after three weeks.
Arbitrary Shutdown of Social Media Platforms
The reasons behind the blocking of the social media on May 9, 2016 remained unexplained, until they were restored on December 2, 2016. Several rights groups including Internet Without Border, Access Now, that advocate for a transparent and neutral Internet denounced the shutdown. . According to Internet without Borders (ISF), the shutdown cost Chad an estimated amount of 500 million euros.
Ongoing social media blackout in Chad since March 28, 2018
Since March 28, 2018, there has been another social media blackout in full swing, forcing Chadians, who are already used to such situations to bypass the shutdown by using circumvention tools to access the Internet. Annadjib, a young blogger in an interview with TV5 Monde, bitterly explained how the shutdown has interrupted his regular use of the Internet. At the very beginning of this censorship, several freedom of expression and human rights organisations denounced the shutdown of social media platforms in Chad. For instance, the African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) wrote to Airtel officials in the country to demand explanation for the shutdown but, did not receive any feedback. AFEX again issued a statement calling on the government to restore the platforms. Internet without Borders (ISF) also wrote articles in which it called on governments in Central Africa to intervene. But this was also, without any success. On August 24, 2018, ISF and a group of Chadian lawyers, led by Mr. Frédéric Daïnonet, filed a complaint against the mobile operators Airtel and Tigo for blocking access to social social media for over five months at the time. M. Daïnonet denounced the shutdown as a violation of consumer rights and an infringement of the freedom of expression. But in the meantime, the network remains censored.
In a radio interview, Mr. Ahmat Bachir, Minister of Public Security and Administration of Chad denied the restrictions of social media platforms by operators. According to him, “the government would not have allowed/condoned any disruption or restriction of social networks”. For the Chadian minister, the censorship felt by the majority of Chadians is a myth. Inviting civil society groups who are currently filing complaints in Chadian courts for the restoration of normal connectivity, he said: “These are bad languages, gossip,” as reported on the ISF website.
Chadian Internet users (netizens) forced to adapt
Forced to use apps to connect to social networks, Chadians complain about additional costs. The only alternative in order not to exceed their monthly Internet budget is to connect less than usual. This does not favor the growth of the digital economy and the emergence of true freedom of expression.
Chadian Netizens gripped by Paranoia
Often, we hear that WhatsApp as well as other social media platforms are monitored in the country. These are usually rumors circulating among internet users. Those who are more cautious have deactivated their social media accounts, others are just observers, and the bravest continue to navigate as if nothing had happened, that is if they do not end up becoming activists fighting to free “their Internet”. Under no circumstances should censorship be a substitute for dialogue. To gag a whole population amounts to provoking them to rebellion leading to their losing confidence in the authorities.
It is therefore important for stakeholders to work together to protect Internet users by adopting rights-respecting legislation as well as taking measures to protect them against online threats and dangers. The government of Chad has a duty to promote Internet access and penetration, guarantee its transparency and to offer digital literacy education to citizens so that they can take full advantage of the benefits the Internet presents.