As the people stand up to power, governments crack down on freedomsDemocracy
Imagine spending more than a year without being able to access the internet. Without being able to send a message via WhatsApp, laugh at a meme, or chat with friends about football on Facebook. This is the reality in Chad, an African country that was virtually offline from March 2018 until July 2019 – a year, three months and 17 days.
The country had already gone through other periods of blackout. The internet was suspended in the country at least twice in 2018 during protest waves and in 2016 the country spent eight months with access to social networks blocked after controversial elections.
Currently, only 6 percent of the population can access the internet. The government blamed technical problems for the blackout, but did nothing in the way of offering solutions until it recently decided to lift restrictions. Activists and human rights organizations, on the other hand, point to a government aimed at preventing the population from accessing information and organizing to protest against President Idriss Déby, who seeks to remain in power indefinitely.
Ruling Chad since 1990, Déby hopes to remain in power until 2033 through constitutional changes. The new constitution changes the length of the president’s term from five years to six and imposes a two-term limit. It will not, however, be applied retroactively. Meaning Déby can, in a way, start fresh after the next Chadian elections in 2021.
The legislative elections in Chad have been postponed since 2015 and the country is facing an economic crisis due to the drop in the price of oil, a natural resource on which Chad is largely dependent. To control the crisis, the government has imposed severe cuts in public spending, which has led to protests and strikes - with the government's response to cut internet access in a country that already has a low access rate.
In addition to the blackouts, even those who still get some access find websites like the BBC and messaging applications like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp blocked.
Censorship and Power
The online censorship imposed by the Chadian government is not exclusive to the country, or even the continent. Other governments have used scheduled blackouts as well, and the phenomenon is intensifying across the globe.
Although much of the continent has a low internet penetration rate, a high proportion of young people use it for organizing and demanding better living conditions, democracy, and freedom. As a result, the risk of protest is high in several countries, which is probably why we are seeing more and more governments on the continent use internet blackouts to prevent social unrest.
The Arab Spring, as well as the recent fall of long-standing regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe, scared autocratic leaders and governments who are unwilling or unable to provide for their people. With rare exceptions, large protest movements have ultimately led to more autocracy or even to civil war. In Algeria and Sudan, we have yet to see where popular mobilizations will lead, yet the internet blackout massively impacted the movement that ultimately overthrew Sudan’s dictator, Omar al-Bashir.
In fact, internet was switched off after the massive June 3 demonstrations that ended in bloodshed, preventing the international community from following the events as they unfolded. Only after the re-establishment of the internet, a month later, was it possible to know the extent of the massacre that left more than 120 dead, 300 injured, and countless women raped by paramilitary forces.
In view of the power of social media, many African regimes are now using internet blackouts and other censorship tactics to stay in power.
Censorship is Increasing and Spreading
Dictatorships and even democratically elected governments seem to have a certain attraction to internet blackouts whenever they are the object of repudiation and protests. And things have been getting worse. This year alone, Gabon, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Chad, Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo have resorted to blackouts as a way to silence protests against their respective governments.
“People are becoming increasingly afraid to speak out. A spiral of silence sets in. This is particularly evident in Tanzania and Uganda for instance” says Nwachukwu Egbunike, researcher at University of Ibadan, in Nigeria. Mentioning Erick Kabendera’s case in Tanzania, he notes that Kabendera, an investigative journalist, was “charged first with having incriminating things, later they claimed he was not a citizen of Tanzania. When that did not work, it's now that he dodged taxes. Tanzania, the once flag bearer of Pan Africanism under [Julius] Nyere, now plays host to one of the most dictatorial governments in Africa under [John] Magufuli.”
“Because of the rising connectivity and network of netizens, tyrannical governments everywhere, but most especially in Africa, are afraid. Gone are the days when their misdemeanours were confined within their national spaces, now everything gets to be aired, with the immediacy of social media, to the whole world.” says Egbunike. He adds that such governments “have no other choice than to do three things: shut down - or slow down - the internet; jail vocal netizens/journalists; and impose exorbitant taxation on social media. This is the existing paradigm of social media in Africa and governments are afraid because they fear the power of social media.”
Egbunike says, “the list [of countries seeking to censor and control the internet] is endless. And guess what, it's only going to get worse.”
Nigeria, Benin, Mozambique…the List Goes On
Nigeria is one of many examples of countries with an increasing tide of repression of free speech, which, in turn, is part of the authoritative wave behind the internet blackouts. The country is experiencing a rise in government attacks against free speech, including via internet blackouts. Jones Abiri, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Weekly Source, a daily in the state of Bayelsa in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, was arrested in May for alleged cybercrimes and terrorism. Journalist-turned-politician Omoyele Sowore, founder of Sahara Reporters, which has exposed corruption scandals and human rights violations in Nigeria, was arrested without charges in August.
In Benin, a country that was widely considered an example of democracy in West Africa, the internet was heavily censored in May during and after a contested election with a record low turnout in which the opposition was not allowed to run.
Benin’s president, Patrice Talon, a businessman turned politician, was first elected in 2016 with a narrative of respect for democratic institutions. That rapidly turned out to be false.
“It is tempting to say that this is the nature of power. Power is blind, and the possession of power inevitably corrupts reason. Everything suggests that President Patrice Talon has lost his mind. Slowly but with resolve, he moved away from all the values he promoted and that brought him to power. He has gradually established an authoritarian, brutal, liberticidal government policy that is insensitive to public disapproval. His government very early on embarked on the task of systematically challenging hard-won rights and freedoms,” says Lazard Hounsa, lawyer and member of the Centre of Constitutional Law of the University of Abomey Calavi.
Hounsa adds that “some Beninese are imprisoned for their opinion, others have been forced into exile. With a series of reforms in the judicial sectors, the judiciary has lost many of its levers of independence, and it also must be noted the creation of an exceptional court, the CRIET, instrumentalized against opponents and undisciplined political allies to ensure their loyalty.”
Censoring the internet was, then, just a step to secure power and silence dissent.
In Mozambique, a country also considered a model of internet freedom in Africa, the government has implemented some measures that should be regarded with concern.
In July, the government decided to block unregistered SIM cards, which prevents millions of Mozambicans from accessing the internet on the eve of the country's general elections due to take place in October. Since 2016, the country has been using Chinese technology to monitor the population's communications, whether it is telephone calls or SMS messages and e-mail exchanges. However, according to activist and PhD candidate in political science Dércio Tsandzana, “in every country there is that appetite [for censorship]. So far, we may have indications, but nothing clear and effective in this direction in Mozambique.”
Internet access was suspended in the Democratic Republic of Congo between December 31, 2018 and January 20, 2019 while the population waited for the results of the elections. At the beginning of December the country had already raised the cost of internet access by 60 percent.
President Joseph Kabila said the aim of the blackout was to avoid conflict after the results were announced but his intention, and that of other authoritarian leaders in general, is to prevent the population from organizing. It also creates a vicious circle in which troubled governments use any excuse to shut down the internet to prevent protest, causing damage to the economy by suspending services and even payments.
The Many Costs
For dictators, staying in power is more important than securing the wellbeing of citizens. Internet blackouts come at the expense of the health of their countries' economies and development.
The economic and therefore social costs are indeed astronomical. Recently Tonga, a small archipelago in Oceania, faced a frantic situation. The submarine cable that carried optical fibre to the country was accidentally cut and the country plunged into a blackout where even calling another country became an almost impossible task. Officials were forced to use internet via satellite, with limited bandwidth, prioritizing essential services. What happened in Tonga was an accident, but it remains an example of the repercussions of internet cuts.
When President Musevini decided to block internet access in 2016, Uganda accumulated losses of more than $2 million in just five days. Cameroon accumulated a loss of nearly $1.4 million the previous year, and in Ethiopia the loss was of $8 million for 30 days of blockades in 2015 and 2016. In Ethiopia, there is also discussion of a law to combat so-called fake news, imposing heavy fines on those who spread false information. Activists argue that the law may serve to censor freedom of expression on-and offline.
Persecuting individuals for alleged fake news is easier and less costly than blocking the entire internet, but it is another form of censorship and a scare tactic. Further, the costs for democracy are enormous.
An African Phenomenon?
Far from being an African phenomenon, internet censorship is a common practice of governments who seek to restrict freedom of speech, control the flow of information, and prevent demonstrations. From Indonesia blocking the internet in the separatist region of West Papua, to Sri Lanka blocking social media after the terrorist attacks in April, or South Korea’s long history of internet censorship, African countries are not alone.
Despots and authoritarian regimes are learning from one another across continents. In Iraq, for example, 75 percent of the country is offline in the midst of a wave of anti-corruption protests that, by October 9, have left more than 100 dead and over 6,000 wounded. Even though the situation seems calmer, social media is still offline in most of the country.
Last month, West Papua’s separatist region of Indonesia was also hit by a massive wave of protests and soon the internet was shut down for several days while government forces violently repressed protestors.
The growth of China’s power both on the African continent and of course in Asia is unlikely to make things better. With worrying records in human rights, freedom of expression, and internet freedom, China's heavy investments in African countries are also reflected in the quality of democracy on the continent.
Although China is guided more by pragmatism than by ideology in its negotiations with African countries, financial and political support for authoritarian leaders, in other words, maintaining the status quo, is a reality. This is not to say that the U.S. or Europe have, or have had, a democratizing role, but are also guided by economic interests that have sustained and sustain authoritarian leaders.
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