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Are internet shutdowns the new normal?

In Perspective

Are internet shutdowns the new normal?

The proliferation of internet shutdowns during periods of heightened tensions in several countries has raised fears about the freedom of expression in Africa. But the reality is more nuanced and is related largely to the nature of authoritarianism rather than geography. By Sam Woodhams*

Millions of African citizens have had their freedom of expression curtailed during critical periods of political unrest in the past few months, as the number of internet shutdowns continues to rise.

The Associated Press wrote: “2019 is already a busy year for internet shutdowns in Africa, with governments ordering cut-offs as soon as a crisis appears.”

While it is undeniable that internet shutdowns are becoming increasingly common, recent commentary has failed to take into account the longer history of authoritarian regimes across the globe restricting digital access. In doing so, there is a danger of portraying the contemporary issue as a uniquely African one and disregarding the progress being made in areas across the continent.

However, the recent elections in Senegal and Nigeria demonstrate that internet shutdowns are not a uniform approach by African governments during periods of heightened political sensitivity. 

In the context of growing fears about the normalisation of digital restrictions in Africa, it is therefore worth investigating the activity of these two states to show that, while internet shutdowns may be on the rise in certain African countries, this does not adequately reflect the entire picture.

In the run-up to the election in Nigeria, there were substantial fears about the prospect of an internet shutdown. Fuelled by President Buhari’s unilateral dismissal of Justice Walter Onnoghen, the accusations of Governor Nyesom Wike and a last-minute electoral delay, the government appeared to be adopting an increasingly authoritarian character.

With rising anxiety, citizens went online to find ways of remaining connected in case of a shutdown. Quartz Africa’s ‘Guide to staying online’ became one of the most-read articles the week before the election.

Fears were exacerbated by widespread reporting on the issue, with the Nigerian newspaper Leadership opining that Nigeria could become “the latest in a long list of similar disruptions across Africa”. Through aligning Nigeria so closely with other African nations, however, the autonomy of individual nations was obscured.

Additionally, there was an important aspect of the narrative that was regularly neglected in the coverage. On 1 February, The Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) issued a statement that denied plans for restricting citizens’ ability to access the internet.

“The Office of the National Security Adviser remains committed to protecting the rights of the public to access information and communication technology facilities,” it said.

The statement attempted to reassure citizens about the commitment to maintaining digital freedoms and called the allegations made by Governor Wike “a disinformation”. However, with limited coverage, the statement appeared to fall on deaf ears.  Although wariness regarding such claims is understandable, ONSA acted on its promise and no internet disruptions were recorded over the election weekend.

Fears regarding internet restrictions were also amplified in Senegal where, on 26 February, President Macky Sall won re-election during the first round of voting.  According to an earlier report by Al Jazeera, the government had began to tighten its grip on digital content months before the election was due to take place.

Citing the example of Oley Mane – a prominent TV presenter who was arrested and spent three months in jail for sending a doctored picture of the President to friends on WhatsApp – the report claimed that internet restrictions during the election were increasingly likely. 

With high-profile cases of individuals being persecuted due to their activity online, it was entirely justifiable that citizens became fearful about the prospect of future interventions. However, as in Nigeria, the election occurred without any significant digital restrictions, despite the heightened political sensitivity.

Elsewhere shutdowns proliferate

In achieving this, Senegal’s status as one of the continent’s most stable democracies remains intact. This has not been the case, however, in several other countries. 

Since the beginning of the year there have been significant digital restrictions in Sudan, Algeria, Cameroon and Zimbabwe. This follows a broader process in which, enabled by advancing technological capabilities, the number of shutdowns in Africa has increased for the past three years in a row.

Though each have distinct contexts and features, all of the above have occurred during a time of significant social unrest. As the internet-freedom organisation, Netblocks, has argued: the interruptions in Algeria on Friday 1 March were “consistent with technical means used to limit the flow of information in order to quell protests.”

A further commonality is the authoritarian nature of the regimes in power in each of these countries. Unsurprisingly, authoritarian regimes with little interest in democratic processes are more likely to use internet kill switches.

Since at least the break-out of the Arab Spring in 2010, internet restrictions have been deployed by authoritarian governments attempting to control the flow of information and stifle citizens’ ability to organise protests. This has, since that time, become a routine practice for regimes seeking to maintain power in the face of rising opposition.

Looking further afield, it is clear that this is not unique to the African context. As the recent events in Venezuela, Iran and India show, it is a global trend which is dictated not by geography, but rather by the nature of the regime in power.

Based on much of the recent coverage, one could easily be led to believe that internet shutdowns are becoming the standard practice across Africa. However, as the broader international context and the elections of Nigeria and Senegal show, this is far from a uniform development.

That is not to downplay the very real danger posed by states that are resolute on disabling the internet during periods of unrest. Instead, it is to advance a more nuanced understanding of digital restrictions which focuses not on geography but rather on politics. 

Once the debate has shifted in such a way, we can begin to ask more significant questions such as whether the increasing frequency of internet shutdowns is linked to a rise in authoritarianism throughout the world and, if so, what can be done to slow it. NA

*Sam Woodhams is a senior researcher at the digital advocacy group, Top10VPN.

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