More African Governments Are Clamping Down On The Internet To Block Dissent

More African Governments Are Clamping Down On The Internet To Block Dissent

(AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, file)

African governments are growing increasingly intolerant of free and uncensored internet access for citizens who go online to express discontent over the cost of living, rigged elections and power hangers-on.

In just the first few weeks of 2019, six countries – Sudan, Gabon, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Chad and South Sudan – have either totally shut down internet connection for days or cut access to social media sites to curtail communication.

These internet “kill switches” or “blackouts” are mostly aimed at containing internet activism. Governments claim that false information on the internet fuels hate and violence during crises such as fuel riots in Zimbabwe and a disputed general election in DRC.

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“A general network shutdown is in clear violation of international law and cannot be justified by any means,” said David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, in a response to the shutdown in DRC in January.

2019 is bracing up to be a record year for internet censorship on the continent, according to New York-based international digital rights group Access Now.

The rights group documented 21 internet shutdowns across Africa in 2018, a steep jump from 13 in 2017 and 12 in 2016. Internet shutdowns are bound to rise this year – especially during elections – in a region second only to Asia for internet switch-offs.

Digital Dictatorship

Digital dictatorship has been on the rise in recent years in Africa. Some countries impose restrictions on how people use the internet by either heavily taxing services such as social media in Uganda and Tanzania — or outright banning it.

Uganda introduced a social-media tax of 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.05) per day in mid-2017 — a first of its kind in the world, according to Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In Tanzania, where a cybercrime bill was passed into law in 2015, the government asked all bloggers to pay a $930 annual fee to continue publishing online. This forced most bloggers to shut down their websites.

“Social media is a threat to many authoritarian regimes, as the Arab Spring clearly demonstrated,” said Sharon Anyango, Communication and Outreach Officer at the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS).

“Shutting it down will hurt economies and violate citizens’ rights and election-time shutdowns will only cast doubts and cause tension about the outcome of the election,” Anyango said.

It is difficult to find an African country that has not curtailed internet access — or is not in the process of doing so. Even more progressive countries such as Kenya, Ghana and Egypt have passed cybercrime and communication laws that limit the right of expression.

This has a negative impact on economies and adversely affects how investors rank them in terms of doing business, according to a report on The Economic Impact of Disruptions to Internet Connectivity published by the Global Network Initiative (GNI) in 2016.

For each day that internet services are shut down, an average low-level-connectivity country in Africa loses as much as 0.4 percent or $0.6 million of daily GDP for every 10 million people, according to GNI estimates.

“Shutting down the internet undermines economic activity and chills free expression,” said GNI Executive Director Judith Lichtenberg in the report.

“The economic and human rights harms of network shutdowns reinforce each other, and are of particular concern in developing countries, emerging and fragile democracies, and jurisdictions with weak rule of law.”

Digital rights

A growing number of digital rights advocates have emerged to fight these shutdowns, pointing to a rise in suppression by African governments on freedom of expression and information.

With more smartphones and a fast-growing tech ecosystem in many African countries, more people are going online for information and communication. There are growing calls for access to free internet as a fundamental right across the continent.

Digital rights infringement risks hurting this key emerging sector of the economy. Activists are quick to highlight this and to shame telecommunications companies that caught abating it.

Protests erupted in Togo in 2017 after the West African government cut off internet and blocked social media sites including Whatsapp. Several government websites were also taken down by some 5,000 activists, according to Quartz Africa.

But even with activists taking on rogue African governments, there are still fears that state-sanctioned shutdowns will not slow down. Instead, governments could get sophisticated and seal loopholes such as VPN use, according to the Associated Press.

Fear of a possible internet shutdown is running high this week in Nigeria, Africa’s second-largest economy, ahead of a hotly contested presidential election scheduled for Feb. 16. Activists worry the shutdown could be imposed under the guise of security concerns.