Counting the cost of Africa's Internet blackouts
Publish date: 09 January 2019
Issue Number: 1763
Diary: Legalbrief eLaw
What do the DRC, Gabon and Sudan have in common? They are all going through significant political turmoil and the authorities have cut or squeezed Internet access, notes Legalbrief. And they are not the only ones. From Ethiopia in the east to Algeria in the north, Cameroon in the centre and Zimbabwe in the south, the authorities are regularly cutting off connectivity for extended periods – more than any other region globally. That’s according to the 2018 Transparency report from Facebook which monitors the accessibility of its services worldwide. A report on the QZ site notes that Cameroon holds the record for overseeing Africa’s longest Internet blackout. Starting from January 2017, connections in the Anglophone Southwest and Northwest regions have either been completely off or slowed down for extended periods. Internet disruptions have been imposed for long periods in Chad and Togo, while shorter disruptions have been recorded in Egypt, Mali and The Gambia. Digital rights advocates are fighting the shutdowns in court, highlighting how the restrictions violate rights to free expression and information. Those efforts can sometimes prove futile: After waiting for more than two years to get a court hearing on why Uganda shut the Internet during its February 2016 elections, activists failed to get their petition heard in November. Internet shutdowns have also spiked sharply around the world in recent years, rising from 75 in 2016 to almost 190 last year, according to international digital rights group Access Now. '(We've seen an) increased number of intentional, government-sponsored Internet disruptions over the past three years,' Access Now's Melody Patry told CNN. 'The techniques used by governments to shut down the Internet vary, from total blackouts to targeted throttling or blocking of specific applications.’
While the problem is clearly not restricted to Africa, the world’s attention is now focused on the DRC, Gabon and Sudan where political uncertainty – fuelled by leadership concerns – have coincided with a fresh wave of Internet restrictions. In the DRC, the authorities cut Internet and text services to preserve public order after ‘fictitious results’ from last month’s crucial election began circulating on social media. UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye has urged the Internet services to be restored ‘as a matter of urgency’, warning that the continued blocking of all primary telecommunications is a clear violation of international law. A report on The Citizen site notes that the shutdown is also hampering the ability of the UN Stabilisation Mission in the DRC, or Monusco, to communicate with its partners in the field, including those offering protection to vulnerable civilians. Legalbrief reports that the US, EU, Canadian and Swiss diplomats also called on the Congolese Government to refrain 'from blocking means of communication, in particular access to the Internet and the media’. In 2016, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution unequivocally condemning, as a violation of international human rights, measures that intentionally prevent or disrupt access to the Internet and the dissemination of online information.
Three decades after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir swept into power in a military coup, a wave of demonstrations over price hikes and shortages continues to grow. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets around the country to demand his resignation. The protesters, who chanted slogans borrowed from the ‘Arab Spring’ movements in neighbouring Egypt and nearby Libya, have been numerous enough to fill stadiums and the square in front of Bashir’s palace. The Washington Post reports that the government has shut off access to social media sites across the country in an effort to contain the protests, but widespread use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, has allowed the Internet to remain a space not just for sharing information but also for sharing graphic pictures and videos of wounded or dead protesters.
And soldiers from Gabon's Republican Guard who launched a botched coup ‘to restore democracy’, briefly cut Internet access on Monday. A soldier who identified himself as Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, commander of the Republican Guard, confirmed that a curfew had been imposed over the capital, Libreville, and that the Internet was cut. However, the government soon afterwards declared that it was in control. BBC News reports that two soldiers who took part in the attempted coup were killed. They were shot dead after security officers stormed the station. Three others are under arrest.