Africa’s dwindling online freedom

Africa's hunger for internet access is peerless around the world. [CECIL BO DZWOWA / Shutterstock]

Africa is using the internet more and more but many governments are employing web blackouts to manipulate voters and silence critics. EURACTIV Germany reports.

At the beginning of December, the internet was shut down during the Gambia’s elections.  President Yahya Jammeh, known for numerous human rights violations, also cut off international mobile telephone calls.

In Cameroon, restricting internet access has become a tried-and-tested way of silencing criticism of the country’s undemocratic processes.

At the end of January, internet access in the English-speaking northwest and southwest was paralysed after a demonstration was held protesting the government’s shortcomings in ensuring the country be bilingual (English and French).  Two anglophone organisations had already been declared illegal.

It is not a new development: in 2011, the Egyptian government cut internet and mobile access to 80 million people when protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir square. Governments in Myanmar and Nepal have in previous years done the same.

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Now their sub-Saharan counterparts are using the tactic more and more. Blackouts have grown at an alarming rate over the last two years according to researchers.

“The technology is neutral but it can have a particular influence on minorities like journalists or certain ethnic groups,” said Ben Wagner of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), citing Cameroon as a case in point.

It is all too easy for the shutdown to be done, given the company that runs the fibre-optic network is state-owned.  Shortly before the blackout, President Paul Biya, who has been in office since 1982, approved the sending of text messages warning people not to spread “fake news” on social media.

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The SMS messages, sent to all users in the country, said a prison sentence of up to two years could be the punishment. As more and more people have access to the internet, the threat got through to nearly everyone.

According to figures provided by Freedom House, nine sub-Saharan countries shut off their internet at some point in 2016, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger. Uganda and Chad followed the Gambian example of instituting a net blackout during presidential elections.

No other continent on Earth has taken as rapidly to mobile phone use as Africa, with applications like Whatsapp, Facebook and YouTube widely used.

“The more people have access to information, the more they want to know, and the internet facilitates that,” said Ugandan blogger and consultant Ruth Aine Tindyebwa. She is a big advocate of people publishing information about political and government leaders online and asking questions.

But Tindyebwa acknowledges that for all the benefits the web might bring, governments are also as a result able to spy on the activities of citizens and NGOs. Not only can governments get information on people but they can also prevent the spread of it.

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Syria is a prime example. President Bashar Assad has in the past ordered airstrikes against internet infrastructure in order to limit communication.

Head of NGO Media Monitoring Africa William Robert Bird said that, unfortunately, the problem often starts with users themselves though.  He warned that people too often see the internet as just a means of entertainment, rather than seeing it as a tool that provide education and political influence.

“If the trend in southern Africa continues then most people are not going to know how to filter information and data, meaning there is a risk that the web will just be used as a manipulation tool by governments,” he explained.

Bird insisted that citizens, particularly in autocratic systems and dictatorships, can use the web to be politically active. He also said that there are possibilities to mitigate the effects of government-sanctioned blackouts by forming cooperative networks that operate independently of state-owned providers.