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The Kenya Forum | The growing threat of Internet shutdowns in Africa - The Kenya Forum

April 9, 2024

Summary

According to a report by Access Now, the continent witnessed over 25 internet shutdowns in 2020 alone.

More by Winnie Kabintie

The growing threat of Internet shutdowns in Africa

The growing threat of Internet shutdowns in Africa

Impacts of Internet shutdowns in Africa

In the past five weeks, I’ve delved into an online course on Internet Shutdowns, supported by Access Now. This experience has afforded me a comprehensive understanding of the dire threat posed by this practice, not only in Africa but worldwide, to freedom of speech, access to information, and democracy.

I have also gotten insights into various tools developed to measure internet Shutdowns and ways to circumvent the vice.

In a troubling trend, governments across Africa have increasingly resorted to internet shutdowns and censorship as tools to stifle dissent and quash political opposition often under the guise of “maintaining order”. Particularly during periods of political unrest or elections, authorities frequently restrict access to social media and online platforms, depriving citizens of their basic rights to information and expression. These actions not only undermine democratic principles but also sow seeds of distrust in governance, ultimately fueling social instability.

According to a report by Access Now, the continent witnessed over 25 internet shutdowns in 2020 alone, with countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, and Tanzania frequently resorting to this measure. Whether in response to protests, elections, or social upheaval, governments have justified these shutdowns as necessary for national security or public safety, often invoking laws that grant them broad powers over telecommunications infrastructure.

In June 2020, for instance, the Ethiopian government shut down internet access across the country for more than three weeks following protests sparked by the killing of a popular singer, Hachalu Hundessa. The shutdown severely restricted citizens’ ability to access information, communicate, and organize protests.

Similarly, the Anglophone regions of Cameroon have endured recurrent internet shutdowns since 2017 amid unrest and demonstrations against perceived marginalization by the Francophone-led government. These shutdowns typically occur during periods of heightened tension, including protests, elections, and civil unrest.

During the 2021 general elections in Uganda, the government imposed a nationwide internet shutdown on the eve of the polls. The shutdown lasted for several days, coinciding with a period of heightened political tension and allegations of election irregularities. Social media platforms and messaging apps were also blocked during this time.

Impact of Internet Shutdowns on Democracy

Internet shutdowns have profound implications for democracy and human rights. They stifle freedom of expression and access to information, depriving citizens of the means to communicate, organize, and hold their governments accountable. In an era where digital platforms play a central role in civic engagement and political discourse, the silencing of online voices undermines the very foundations of democracy.

Economic Impacts of Internet Shutdowns

Shutdowns also disrupt economic activity and hinder access to essential services, exacerbating social inequalities. Small businesses suffer losses, students are unable to access educational resources, and healthcare providers struggle to deliver critical services—all because of the absence of reliable internet connectivity.

Threat to advocacy efforts

For civil society organizations and activists, internet shutdowns pose significant challenges to their advocacy and mobilization efforts. Online platforms serve as vital tools for raising awareness, coordinating campaigns, and documenting human rights abuses. When governments cut off internet access, these groups are effectively silenced, hampering their ability to challenge injustices and promote social change.

While digital technologies hold immense potential for empowering citizens and fostering transparency, they also present formidable challenges to the fragile democracies of the continent.

In the face of these challenges, it’s imperative to safeguard digital freedoms to empower citizens and foster transparency.

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