Internet shut-down, recurrent weapon of human rights violation: a view on Africa

Introduction

In the last decade, internet shut-down has been a recurrent practice weaponised by   states as a measure to restrict the flow of information across communities.Civilians have often resorted to social media to express grievances and concerns over political irregularities, poor socio-economic conditions and human rights abuses they experience. Many at-times, these grievances have been amplified by key opinion leaders and further generated street protests and violent extremism. Internet shut-down is usually enforced during public manifestations, active armed conflicts, examinations and post-electoral irregularities gearing up to violent protests. While this measure may sometimes appear effective in curbing public protests, it poses an even bigger problem as to the violation of people’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression and access to information as articulated in Principle 37 of the Declaration of Principles On Freedom Of Expression And Access To Information In Africa (1). Besides existing national legislations, these fundamental rights are further guaranteed in international legal frameworks such as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2) which promotes and protects the right to freedom of expression and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which protects this right to freedom of expression (3). Mindful of the indispensable role internet now plays across communities, this paper aims to present an overview of the current situation in Africa (I), examine its implications on communities(II) and table some policy recommendations(III) to mitigate the practice of internet shut-down.

Internet shut-down in Africa: an overview of affected states

Cases of internet shut-down are country specific. While violent manifestations of street protests are the main reasons why governments impose shut-down in some states, pre and post electoral irregularities, examinations and active armed conflicts account for some of the reasons why, governments impose internet shut-down. Examining country-specific cases therefore, the first case study in this paper highlights civilians in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon who experienced a shut-down in January 2017 as a result of an ongoing conflict between armed separatists groups and government forces(4). Zimbabwe equally joined the list of states who’s government imposed a nationwide shut-down in January 2019 owing to protests from civilians concerned by poor socio-economic conditions and increase in price of fuel (5). While the National Electoral Commission (NEC) in Somaliland announced an internet shut-down to reportedly «reduce the spread of fake news» in November 2019 (6), elections in Gabon, which put an end to the 56 year old Bongo reign, were marred by post electoral irregularities and further aggravated by street protests, which prompted the government of Gabon to impose internet shut-down in August 2023 (7). In October 2023, armed clashes between the main military and a smaller group in Libya caused the government to impose a shut-down on telecommunications (8) meanwhile, worsening socio-economic conditions in Sierra Leone pushed civilians to the streets, thereby amplifying social tensions which consequently forced the government to impose a near-total shut-down in the country (9). It remains unclear between the Sudanese government and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who is responsible for internet shut-down in Sudan but, civilians have been deprived of internet and communication networks since February 2nd 2024(10).Ethiopia’s Amhara region recorded significant cases of human rights violations such as rape, torture and targeted killings of individuals amongst many others, which were unfortunately under-reported due to the government’s decision to disrupt access to social media (11). One of the uncommon cases of internet shut-down however is the case of Algeria where the government instructed service providers to restrict access to certain websites so as to reportedly put an end to the practice of cheating during examinations (12) and for a second time in the space of one year, the government of Senegal has again imposed a nationwide internet shut-down as a result of President Macky Sall’s decision to indefinitely postpone presidential elections (13). Finally, violence in Chad prior to long awaited presidential elections have led to disruptions in internet and telecommunications further creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and becoming the latest country in Africa to do so (14).  Judging from the cases highlighted above, the time frame and frequency within which these disruptions occurred, it is increasingly evident that governments in Africa are far from the practice of disrupting access to internet as a resort to preventing civilian agitations and violent extremism. In fact, it is even foreseeable that future agitations from civilians who do not align with government ideologies, actions or approaches and which have a potential to escalate to incite public disorder or lead to armed confrontations will be consequentially met by partial or total internet shut-down with implications on communities.

Implications of internet shut-down on communities

As it may be rightly imagined, disruption of internet connectivity obviously impacts fundamental rights accrued to individuals. Individual rights vary from human rights, to civic and political rights to economic and digital rights.

The African Commission on Human and People’s rights in Article 9 of its 2019 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa guarantees individuals the right to receive information as well as the right to express and disseminate information. By hindering individuals from this right, states systematically violate people’s rights by distorting the flow and access of pertinent information within communities. Still from a human rights perspective, internet shut-down indirectly helps to cover cases of human rights violations which may occur within communities but fail to be tracked or reported. Taking Ethiopia as case study, several cases of rape, targeted killings, torture were carried out as a result of the crisis in the Amhara region.

From an economic perspective, internet shut-down equally retards economic development in communities as lack of information can affect supply chains and hinder ongoing developmental projects. Businesses which rely on internet access for communications, sales and general operations would definitely incur financial losses due to disruptions, most especially start-ups which are vulnerable in character.

In cases where the government imposed internet shut-down during examinations to curb cheating, this may equally have adverse effects on the overall academic system as institutions which rely on internet access to deliver on-line courses and training programs would be restricted from this service.

The health sector amongst many others is significantly impacted by internet shut-down as certain essential services which rely on internet access such as demand and supply of medicines through on-line tools are forced to shut-down. Equally, individuals lose the right to life-saving healthcare information.

Politically, the decision by governments to impose internet shut-down has a potential to damage its reputation and integrity towards the public and the international community. It may reflect the degree of censorship and transparency that exists in certain communities. This may go further to breach trust citizens have on their governments hence restraining civic engagement which is vital for community development.

Conclusion

It is true that the practice of internet shut-down may have certain positive effects such as the ability to counter hate speech and fake news which have a potential to incite public disorder and also, shut-downs may help to protect sensitive data from cyber threats which can impact on national security. However, the repercussions of internet shut-down largely outweigh its benefits as the decision to impose shut-downs have proven counter-productive and do not really address root causes of the initial problems existing in communities. This creates room therefore for governments to rethink the decision to impose shut-downs in communities.

Policy recommendations

Bearing in mind the need to preserve fundamental rights and create favorable conditions for sustainable development, it is recommended to states to;

  1. Invest in preventive approaches by being more transparent and accountable in the discharge of administrative responsibilities. Transparency helps to inform public opinion of policies, actions and projects which could either trigger early warnings on poor policies or generate interest from the public on best approaches on how the government may orientate its actions.
  2. It is recommended for government authorities to enhance collaboration with private entities and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to ensure that decision making follows a bottom – top consultative process such that policies are well-informed and designed in response to community needs.
  3. Communication plays a vital role across communities. It may help to inform on government actions, counter wrong narratives, generate data from the public, identify best practices amongst many other functions. Ensuring citizens have access to pertinent information in time and via multiple outlets may help to suppress frustrations and counter fake news triggered from wrong outlets hence, preventing social tensions and likely incitation to public disorder.
  4. Governments may rethink and identify alternative approaches to curbing social tensions by being instantly reactive to public concerns i.e. not giving room for public disorder to escalate or grow out of proportion but rather, carry out immediate actions to mitigate tensions and only impose shut-downs as a last resort. Added to this, the purpose of every shut-down has to be made known to the public and be backed by strong evidence
Antem Anthony
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Antem Anthony is a Policy Analyst in peace & security at the Foretia Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, he served as conflict, policy and security assistant at the International Crisis Group, Kenya. Anthony is a certified administrative and operations professional from the United Nations University for Peace and the Pan African Institute for Development, West Africa (PAID-WA)

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