The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has called on African countries to refrain from interfering with the right of individuals to seek, receive and impart information through any means of communication and digital technologies, by using measures such as the removal, blocking or filtering of content.
In a statement issued on April 8, 2020 on its behalf by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Commissioner Lawrence Mute, the Commission cited Principle 38(1) of the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, recently adopted at its 65th Ordinary Session in Banjul, The Gambia, in November 2019, and urged States not to “engage in or condone any disruption of access to the internet and other digital technologies for segments of the public or an entire population.”
Commissioner Mute noted that in accordance with the Declaration, any such interference is permissible only if it is justifiable and compatible with international human rights law and standards.
He called on the African States to take all measures to guarantee respect for and protect the right to freedom of expression and access to information through ensuring access to the internet and social media services, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Expressing concern on internet shutdowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Special Rapporteur stressed that “States should not disregard rule-of-law dictates by exploiting the pandemic to establish overreaching interventions.”
Recalling the Commission’s statement of March 24, 2020, on human rights-based effective responses to the COVID-19 virus in Africa, he reiterated the critical duty of States in times of public health emergencies to ensure that members of the public receive accurate, regular, accessible and science-based information on the threat that COVID-19 poses to their health, the role and impact of the measures adopted for preventing and containing the virus, the precautionary measures that members of the public should take, and on the scale of the spread.
The Special Rapporteur noted that any attempt by States to cut or restrict access to the internet, block social media platforms or other communications services, or slow down internet speeds, restricts the public’s access to health information that may be used not only to protect them from contracting the virus but also contain its spread.
Additionally, he said, “at a time when Governments have imposed measures that limit movement, closed schools and businesses to contain the pandemic spread, the public needs access to the internet for educational and economic purposes. Internet shutdowns also disrupt the ability of journalists to verify the information and keep the public updated on the measures governments are taking to contain the spread of the virus.”
The Special Rapporteur noted that in Ethiopia, the Government began cutting connections to mobile phone networks, landlines and the internet in the Oromia region in response to unrest in the region on January 3, 2020, and that services were not restored until March 31, 2020.
He also cited the Government of Guinea, which imposed an internet and social media shutdown between March 21 and 23, 2020, coinciding with parliamentary elections and a contested constitutional referendum.
The Special Rapporteur reminded the African States that internet and social media shutdowns violate the right to freedom of expression and access to information, contrary to Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
He said: “The internet and social media have given voice to the people of Africa who may now discuss on social, economic and political issues far more than ever before, and States should not take away that voice.”