Internet Shutdown: A Modern form of Censorship?
By Marion Ogeto
Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, some countries resorted to an internet shutdown during their national elections in the name of “national security”. Internet shutdowns are however not a new phenomenon as Africa has been a victim of this given Egypt, Sudan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Togo, Burundi, Chad, Mali, Cameroon, Somalia, Uganda and Guinea have previously experienced different forms of shutdowns.
Internet Shutdown is modern censorship:
In 2019, at least 10 African countries blocked access to the internet as documented by Access Now. In 2020, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Tanzania, Togo and Guinea experienced shutdowns.
What is an internet shutdown?
This is essentially any form of internal disruption of internet-based communication rendering them inaccessible or unavailable, for a specific location or population. It may also be any form of manipulation of web content.
Internet shutdowns are majorly because of demonstrations and protests or may at times be used to supposedly ‘prevent’ upcoming civil unrest in the name of national security. For instance, in 2019, Zimbabwe instigated internet shutdowns in response to increasing protests following in rise of fuel prices in the country.
Interestingly, internet shutdown causes even more civil unrest after it is implemented. In a study conducted in 2011 after Egypt’s infamous internet shutdown, it showed that protests sparked as a result of the shutdown.
Internet shutdown adversely affect our ability to enjoy our rights and fundamental freedoms, specifically access to information, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of demonstration, political participation, right to education and health- to name just a few.
Internet shutdown Human Rights Violations
Moreover, the internet human rights framework has alluded to the adoption of internet access as a right in and of itself.
The rights and fundamental freedoms stated above are however not absolute, meaning that they can be limited. Any form of limitation nonetheless must not be arbitrary- it must be prescribed by the law, must be necessary in a democratic society and proportionate.
In order to ensure the mode used to limit a right is proportionate, states must balance what they are trying to curb with the likely effect of the method used. Shutdowns have dire consequences not only on rights and fundamental freedoms but also on the economy. Shutdowns even affect citizen’s health and their ability to enjoy their right to education as seen in a study conducted in University of Pretoria on the Somalia shutdown of 2017 that led to critical medical information not being delivered and patients were unable to access online health services. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, people are unable to receive crucial medical information pertaining to the virus.
Mental and psychological well-being is also gravely affected given communication is cut off during shutdowns. Imagine living in a world where your voice has been taken away. In a world where you cannot voice your opinion and where you cannot receive/impart any information whatsoever.
States must also consider the importance of the right or freedom they seek to limit and must not limit the essence of the right. In this case freedom of expression, demonstration and assembly serve an important purpose in society by creating an avenue for the common mwananchi to voice their concern, frustration or fear about government action or inaction.
By taking away these rights and freedoms, the state thereby forces the citizen to resort to other ways to ventilate their ideas- which may not always be ideal.
Further, as has been previously stated in Human Rights Courts, States claiming to prevent civil unrest by refusing to uphold and fulfil the citizen’s right to freedom of demonstration, protect and expression is tantamount to admitting the State is incapable of providing security to its citizens- which is not the case.
Demonstration and protests are perfectly legal and should not always be alluded to violence and unrest; it remains the responsibility of the state to ensure citizens are able to participate in demonstrations and protests by providing state resources and manpower to ensure they remain peaceful.
Entirely preventing internet shutdowns is a matter that is currently under debate. Many civil society organizations launched the #KeepItOn campaign to encourage countries to refrain from imposing shutdowns. This puts positive pressure on the international community to refrain from engaging in any form of shutdowns.
Moreover, some also propose using Internet Service Providers as an avenue to prevent shutdowns altogether. However, this is dependent on whether ISPs are independent or are governed by the state. Courts have also been instrumental in speaking out against shutdowns as ECOWAS delivered a judgement in July 2020 against a Togolese shutdown declaring it to be a violation of rights. However, will these prevent subsequent shutdowns?
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Some states however are unable to receive redress form the judicial system as Uganda also filed a Petition against the shutdown experienced in 2016 but the case has never substantively proceeded. Internet shutdowns are clearly not the solution to ensure national security. There is need to encourage all States not to resort to internet shutdown.
The writer is a Human Rights Lawyer