Africa: Increasing internet Shutdowns and media bans limiting access to information

Digital 6 min read
ARTICLE 19

ARTICLE 19 is concerned by a series of internet shutdowns across Africa, most recently in Zimbabwe, where the internet has reportedly been blocked since 15 January. Similar shutdowns in Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon and South Sudan have likewise paralyzed access to information and communication for citizens of these countries.

In Zimbabwe, protests over fuel prices have been followed by the internet being shutdown while in Sudan, social media sites have been shutdown since December following protests over increasing food and gas prices. On the other hand, in South Sudan, the media has been banned from covering the protests happening in Sudan. In DRC the government shutdown the internet and SMS services before the 30 December Presidential elections. ARTICLE 19 is in court in Uganda regarding their 2016 internet shutdown and in Kenya regarding their 2018 media ban and calls on all countries concerned to rescind the directives shutting down the internet or banning media coverage and safeguard the right to free expression, privacy and equal access to telecommunication services for their citizens.

Across Zimbabwe, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon and South Sudan; social media platforms and traditional media represent the main channel through which people can freely express themselves, exchange opinions and ideas and get access to information. Therefore, imposing a shutdowns and bans on coverage impede the access to information by the majority of citizens.

“Internet shutdowns in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Gabon have grave implications on freedom of expression in the countries and should be especially discouraged in the context of the ongoing political and social climate. In a situation where it is almost impossible to exercise freedom of expression and freedom of association and assembly on the ground, the internet gives citizens an alternative space to organize and express themselves around discussions on national issues. Given the worrying context of arrests of protestors, blocking access to the internet nationally is a clearly disproportionate response,” said Henry Maina, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa Regional Director.

David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has condemned DRC’s shutdown and stated, “A general network shutdown is in clear violation of international law and cannot be justified by any means…Access to information is crucial for the credibility of the ongoing electoral process. Shutdowns are damaging not only for people’s access to information, but also for their access to basic services”

Additionally, in June 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, a significant policy directive affirming states’ obligation to promote, protect, and support citizens’ enjoyment of human rights on the internet. This move by the Zimbabwe, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon governments contravenes their commitments under this resolution by disrupting free expression and dissemination of information online. Additionally, the banning by the South Sudan government of coverage of protests in Sudan and the harassment of journalists covering Sudan by the South Sudan’s Media Authority and the Sudan National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) is disproportionate in achieving its aim. Laws regulating the media and affecting freedom of expression must therefore be sufficiently precise, and comply with internationally set standards on acceptable limitations of freedom of expression, i.e the three part test of legality, proportionality and necessity.

Effectively; Zimbabwe, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon and South Sudan governments are in contravention of their constitutions, which protects the right to freedom of expression and to seek, receive and impart information, “through any media”.

“At a time when there is such fierce internal debate on any issue, it is essential that the public is able to participate in that debate fully, with access to relevant facts and reporting. The government appears to be trying to stifle that debate, and the media’s role in it”, added Maina.

ARTICLE 19 urges the Zimbabwe, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon and South Sudan governments to immediately cease the shutdowns and enable all forms of communication and access to information over the internet. We also urge for reforms in their laws regulating protests, to ensure they are in line with international standards on freedom of expression and information, and enables citizens to participate fully in political discussions.

For more information, please contact Henry Maina, Director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa at [email protected] or call on +254 727 862230