African States Use Internet Shutdown to Silence Dissent
February 2, 2019 (Ezega.com) - As an avid internet user, what would you do if your government deliberately shuts down the internet? That’s the question many people in Africa have had to answer time and time again over the past years as internet blackouts continue mushrooming.
The last three years have been grim for internet users in Africa and it’s bound to worsen. Last week, Zimbabwe’s High Court ordered internet operators to restore the internet back as the shutdown was illegal. President Mnangagwa’s administration wanted to prevent protestors from sharing information and planning their next move.
The country had experienced protests following the increase of fuel prices from $3 to $12 per gallon, but critics argue the main goal of the shutdown was to prevent the international community from knowing about the violent crackdown on dissenting voices that left 12 dead and more than 600 incarcerated.
Author Chipo Dendere writes that in 2016 and 2017, Africa saw close to 119 internet shutdowns, 43 social media blackouts and 237 of slowed internet speeds. In 2018, there were 21 shutdowns on the continent. The switch offs range from hours, like in the case of Zimbabwe, to 40 weeks in Cameroon –June 2017 to January 2018.
Zimbabwe is not the only culprit. In the last four weeks alone, Chad, Congo, Gabon, and Sudan had their internet services shut down by their respective governments. Ethiopia is also one of the known abusers of the internet for political purposes.
While this practice was the norm several years ago, it has accelerated in countries that rely on the internet for commerce and information sharing.
Tese African countries share one thing in common: recent political turbulence. For instance, in Congo, the shutdown was ordered following a chaotic, delayed, disputed elections with a questionable outcome. Zimbabwe the same.
According to Besseling, African states can easily shut down internet services because many internet service providing companies are state-controlled.
Activists argue that disrupting the internet violates the right to freedom of expression and access to information. This is true since the internet allows people to access and share information about issues like human rights abuses both at home, and with the global community. A single post can be retweeted and shared among millions of people worldwide on Facebook and WhatsApp.
What these governments fail to realize is their country’s economies take a huge hit when they decide to shut down the internet. Many people depend on the internet for cash transfers and mobile banking. African governments end up losing millions in revenue when the internet is out. Also, the blackouts stop remittances from flowing into developing countries in the countries. At the same time, hospitals, banks, and schools can’t operate without the internet.
How Do Citizens Respond?
“People will always find a way,” says Alexander Rusero; an analyst based in Zimbabwe.
When the internet is out, people will always find an alternative way of sharing information. That’s when rumors and gossip escalate. They spread faster than you’d believe. News agencies and opinion leaders bank on social media. Outside these platforms, fake news is the norm.
Also, individuals rely on downloadable virtual private networks that allow users to exchange information across public and shared networks, though this technology doesn’t work for everyone.
Authoritarian Regimes Device New Ways of Fighting Internet Freedoms:
Experts who predicted the internet will change authoritarianism were wrong because it has been successively used to strengthen dictatorial survival. Authoritarians reply by developing sophisticated tools that censor online engagements.
African governments run most of the media houses, making it easy to monitor and even fabricate news as they wish. The Washington Post cites Strive Masiyiwa ---the founder of Econet--- who reported that in Congo and Zimbabwe, government officials directed his companies to shut down internet access and warned that if they refused, his entire staff and company management would be jailed.
Whereas the global community criticizes internet blackouts in Africa, most governments get away with doing so as long as they achieve their goal of ending anti-government protests and muzzling dissenting opinions. As far as the world is concerned, these tactics won’t end anytime soon.
By Solomon O. for Ezega News