The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), through its Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Commissioner Lawrence Mute, has expressed concern over the continuing trend of internet shutdowns in Africa and called on African states to instead take all measures to guarantee, respect and protect the right to freedom of expression and access to information by ensuring access to the Internet and social media services.
The Special Rapporteur cited the rising incidence of internet shutdowns in African countries, including in Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon and Zimbabwe.
Citing specific instances, the rapporteur said in Chad, users started experiencing a shutdown of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp from March 28, 2018 and that over 300 days later, the government of Chad was yet to restored access to the platforms.
In Sudan, the Government shut down access to social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook on December 21, 2018, amid protests over economic hardships in the country. This, in due course, escalated into demands for the resignation of President Omar al-Bashir leading to key telecom companies including MTN Sudan, Zain Sudan, Kanartel and Sudatel being blocked from providing internet services.
The Government of the DRC blocked the internet and social media on December 31, 2018, following the conduct of polls on December 30 and services were not restored fully until January 20, 2019 when the Constitutional Court confirmed Felix Tshisekedi as president elect.
In Gabon, the government ordered internet shut down on January 7, 2019, following a military coup attempt but connectivity was restored the following day, January 8, 2019.
In Zimbabwe, following a directive by the State Security Minister, internet service providers shut down the internet on January 15, 2019. On January 16, 2019 access was partially restored, leaving only a ban on social media platforms. Another full internet shutdown was ordered on January 17, 2019, effectively leaving a majority of Zimbabweans without access to the internet. Commendably, on January 21, 2019, the High Court in Harare ruled that the internet shutdowns were unconstitutional and ordered the restoration of internet access.
The Special Rapporteur noted that internet and social media shutdowns contravenes Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which guarantees the right to freedom of expression and access to information.
He pointed out that the internet and social media have given voice to the people of Africa who are now able to discuss on social, economic and political issues far more than ever before, and urged states not to take away that voice. He added citizens should not be penalised through shutdowns when they demonstrate calling for economic or political reforms or indeed during contested electoral campaigns or polling as has happened most recently in countries such as the DRC, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Commissioner Mute called attention to the Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Internet, adopted in 2011 by special mandate holders on freedom of expression and access to information from around the world, which stresses ‘the transformative nature of the Internet in terms of giving voice to billions of people around the world, of significantly enhancing their ability to access information and of enhancing pluralism and reporting’.
He also called attention to the fact that the African Commission, through Resolution ACHPR/Res.362 (LIX) 2016, has stressed that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online and pointed out that States therefore have an obligation to promote universal access to the internet as it facilitates the fulfillment of other rights.
The Special Rapporteur calls on African states to take all measures to guarantee, respect and protect the right to freedom of expression and access to information through ensuring access to internet and social media services.