Needless Network Disruptions: A Continuing Menace to Online Rights in Africa

Photo: CNN.com

In what constitutes a serious violation of the digital rights of their citizens, governments in Africa are increasingly disrupting the Internet and social media platforms with impunity. Within a space of two weeks, June 3-19, 2019 the governments of five African countries have shut down the Internet or social media platforms for various frivolous reasons.

Demonstrations and Internet Shutdowns

Over the years, several governments on the continent have sought to quell sporadic unrests by shutting down or disrupting the Internet and social media platforms under the pretext of protecting ‘national security’ and ‘public order.’ Despite the proven dire implications of such shutdowns on the social, economic and human rights of citizens, it remains a favourite tool of repression by an increasing number of African governments[1] that appear to have an incurable obsession with the measure. Countries like Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo and most recently Liberia, among others, have all disrupted the Internet in an attempt to suppress public protests.   

The military junta in Sudan which took over office after the ousting of long serving President Omar Al-Bashir, on June 3, 2019 ordered a complete Internet shutdown in the country amidst violent crackdown on protesters. The decision of the military junta to shut down the Internet is an attempt to cover up the atrocities committed against the people of Sudan from the rest of the world. On June 10, 2019 the TMC admitted it had shut down the Internet in Sudan, adding that “the Internet will not return soon because it threatens national security.”

Already, the media has reported that, officials of the country’s paramilitary, Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have been accused of killing 100  individuals with as many as 700 reportedly injured during the June 3 crackdown on protesters. 

Protesters gather on the Capitol Hill during “Save the State” protest in Monrovia

While the people of Sudan continue to wallow in complete digital darkness, the authorities in Liberia also made it to the list of African governments that have resorted to  Internet shutdowns and network disruptions in an attempt to quell anti-government protests. On June 7, 2019 the Weah-led administration ordered Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the country to shut down social media platforms a massive demonstration rocked the capital. . However, the futility of this measure was clear when thousands of Liberians turned out on the Capitol Hill, the seat of government, to participate in the protest dubbed “Save the State.” The protesters were demonstrating against alleged government misuse of national funds and what they described as “creeping dictatorship in their country.”

Examination Malpractices and Internet Shutdowns

Governments in Africa continue to come up with a myriad of reasons to shut down the Internet or social media platforms. Increasingly, examination malpractices have been cited as a justifiable reason by a number of governments as the pretext for interfering with the Internet rights of their citizens. to shut down the Internet on the continent.

Ethiopia’s government on June 11, 2019 cut off the Internet and SMS services. Although the government did not give any explanation for the shutdown, it was reported by local media that the shutdown was linked to ongoing examinations in the country. The Internet was restored on June 14, 2019 after four days of public condemnation.

The use of Internet shutdowns or social media blackout to supposedly curb examination malpractices was first heard of in Ethiopia in 2016 when the government shut down the Internet to ostensibly to prevent circulation of leaked exam questions. Specifically,  on July 11, 2016, the government blocked access to the Internet and social media platforms. The government said the disruption to ‘help students concentrate’ on key university entrance exams scheduled to be taken on July 13. The Internet was restored a day after while social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Viber and WhatsApp remained blocked till after the exams on July 13.

Again, the government of Mauritania on June 10, 2019 disrupted the Internet ten hours daily for four consecutive days during the country’s national exams. The Minister of National Education who confirmed the shutdown indicated it was a measure by the government to “monitor the examinations.”

The shutdown followed a similar one on May 27, 2019 when the government shut down the Internet for four days over reasons of examination malpractice. This measure of completely shutting down Internet by the government was first adopted during the 2018 examinations.

As if to replicate what happened in Ethiopia and Mauritania, Somaliland, has become  the latest country to block the Internet and social media during exams. The authorities in the break-away Republic  on June 19, 2019 disconnected access to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Viber. The Minister of Telecommunications and Technology, Abdiweli Sheikh Ibrahim said the disruption is a “temporary measure which will run for hours when the students are sitting for the exam papers.”

The move which was announced by the government of Somali’s self-declared state ahead of high school exams aimed at “preventing exam irregularities, the spread of fake papers and false rumours” local media halbeeg.com reported on Tuesday.

ISPs and Internet Shutdowns

The African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) has monitored with dismay how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) easily kowtow to government orders, often without any legal basis, to shut down the Internet.. In the above mentioned incidents, the governments in the respective countries sent direct orders to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to switch off Internet connection or disrupt social media networks. Sadly, all the ISPs in the respective countries complied with the governments’ orders without insisting on due process. . As a result, they have become complicit in the flagrant violation of the rights of their clients.

While AFEX recognizes that ISPs are careful to avoid any conflict with the political administrations in the various countries, we will like to remind them of their duty to prioritise the protection of the rights of their clientele.

AFEX therefore urges ISPs working on the continent to resist illegal shutdown orders and, when necessary, seek judicial intervention.

Conclusion

The disruption of the Internet by African governments contravenes national laws as well as international frameworks which guarantee the freedom of expression and access to information rights of citizens. AFEX will also like to reiterate that Internet shutdowns and social media blackouts have a far-reaching effect on the social, economic, political life and livelihood of millions of people. African governments must therefore desist from disrupting the Internet and social media platforms.

[1] Don’t Hit the Switch: Making the Case Against Network Disruption in Africa