A number of African countries have drawn international criticism amid a wave of internet shutdowns aimed at restricting access to information and discourse on social, economic, and political issues. Between December 2018 and January 2019, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon, and Zimbabwe cut off access to the internet in response to protests. [ACHPR Press Release: Shutdowns] Human rights groups and experts have condemned these moves as illegal acts of repression, citing violations of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information. [ACHPR Press Release: Shutdowns; OHCHR Press Release; Access Now Press Release] While the internet shutdowns in Africa contribute to a trend of increasing shutdowns around the world, the international response demonstrates that internet access is now recognized as essential to the exercise of human rights.
In 2018 and January 2019, residents of eight African countries experienced internet-related repression. [ACHPR Press Release: Shutdowns] Most recently, on January 15 in Zimbabwe, a State Security Minister issued a directive to internet providers in the country forcing them to cut services. [ACHPR Press Release: Shutdowns] This ban was lifted on the 16th, leaving only a partial block on various social media sites, but another full ban was enforced on January 17 and remained in place until January 21, when the country’s High Court ruled the internet shutdown unconstitutional and ordered that access be restored. [ACHPR Press Release: Shutdowns] Also this year, following an attempted military coup in Gabon, the government ordered a shutdown that lasted from January 7 to 8, 2019. [ACHPR Press Release: Shutdowns]
Last year, several other countries enacted similar measures. In December 2018, both Sudan and the DRC enacted their own restrictions. Amid popular protests over economic troubles and demands for the resignation of President Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese government shut down various social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and key telecom companies were prevented from providing service. [ACHPR Press Release: Shutdowns] Internet was blocked in the DRC following elections held December 30, just recently having been restored on January 20th when the Constitutional Court confirmed Felix Tshisekedi as the winner. [ACHPR Press Release: Shutdowns] Similarly, in March 2018, Chad enacted a shutdown of social media and internet messaging platforms, which has now lasted over 300 days and remains in place. [ACHPR Press Release: Shutdowns]
In addition to full or partial internet shutdowns, some African States have adopted various measures aimed at regulating access to the internet, contrary to their obligation to protect individuals’ rights to access to information. For example, in May 2018, the Kenya Film and Classification Board issued a directive creating a licensing requirement for any person uploading public videos for viewing or distribution on their social media accounts. [ACHPR Press Release: Regulation] Uganda also enacted its own barrier to internet usage in July by passing the Excise Duty (Amendment) Bill, requiring those using social media platforms and other services it deems ‘over the top’ to pay the equivalent of USD 0.05 per user, per day in order to maintain access. [ACHPR Press Release: Regulation] Additionally, Tanzania adopted its Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2018 which created new licensing requirements costing approximately USD 930 for bloggers in the country. [ACHPR Press Release: Regulation]
Response from Human Rights Experts
United Nations and regional human rights experts have taken note of the restrictions on access to the internet and their negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) issued a public statement “express[ing] concern on the continuing trend of internet shutdowns in Africa, including in Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon and Zimbabwe” and explained that “internet and social media shutdowns violate the right to freedom of expression and access to information contrary to Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.” [ACHPR Press Release: Shutdowns] Further, the African Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, Commissioner Lawrence Mute, recently sent a Letter of Appeal to the President of Zimbabwe requesting additional information about the internet shutdowns and expressing his concerns about the infringement on the rights to freedom of expression and access to information in the country. [ACHPR Press Release: Zimbabwe] Commenting on the situation in the DRC, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression noted that “[a] general shutdown is a clear violation of international law and cannot be justified by any means.” [OHCHR Press Release]
Internet Shutdowns & International Human Rights Law
Internet connectivity allows people to engage in important discourse on the social, economic, and political issues that affect their lives, and any attempts to prevent or penalize people for this constitutes an infringement on peoples’ rights to freedom of information and expression. [ACHPR Press Release: Regulation] In this context, the UN Special Rapporteur has explained that access to the information available on the internet is essential for the credibility of democratic elections and that restrictions run the additional risk of restricting people’s rights to a variety of other basic services. [OHCHR Press Release] Similarly, the African Special Rapporteur emphasized that States have an “obligation to promote universal access to the internet as it facilitates the fulfillment of other rights.” [ACHPR Press Release: Shutdowns] Thus, an internet shutdown—generally defined as an “intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information”—cannot be “justified under human rights law.” See Access Now, #KeepItOn; OHCHR, Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and responses to conflict situations (2015), 4(c).
Under international human rights law, in order for restrictions on freedom of expression to be legitimate, the measures must be necessary to “respect the rights and reputations of others” or “[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.” See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art.19(3). However, often in the case of internet shutdowns, governments impose politically motivated restrictions during demonstrations, elections and other events of extraordinary public interest with little, if any attempt at all, to explain their reasoning. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, UN Doc. A/HRC/35/22 (2017), para. 11. Experts note that the repression and State-sanctioned violence that often occurs following internet disruptions points to the concern that States “exploit the darkness to commit and cover up abuses.” See id. para. 12.
In 2011, UN and regional mandate holders on freedom of expression adopted a Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Internet that specifically addressed States positive obligation to promote open access to the internet and highlighted the importance of the internet as a tool “significantly enhancing” the ability of billions of people to access information. [ACHPR Press Release: Regulation] Thus, all measures that aim to make internet inaccessible or unaffordable run afoul of States’ obligation to protect people’s rights to information and expression. [ACHPR Press Release: Regulation]
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