JANUARY 2019: Internet Shutdowns in Congo DR, Gabon and Zimbabwe

Image result for Internet shutdown Africa
Photo Source: APC Internet Shutdowns Africa 'It's like being cut off from the world'

January started as a very difficult month for the Internet. We faced three (yes three!) Internet shutdowns across the African continent including Congo DR, Gabon and Zimbabwe.

For those who are new to the word "Internet Shutdown", it is can basically be defined as the intentional disruption of the Internet, which are targeted towards specific population in order to control the free flow of information. This can be partial where access to specific websites or applications are restricted or total where there is a complete blackout in the Internet service. 

To fully understand its consequences, Internet shutdown is a major violation of the digital rights of citizens. The constitution of many countries recognizes the right to freedom of expression, opinion, and peaceful assembly.

DR CONGO

On December 30th 2018, Internet was cut off while voters were waiting for the election results in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After what it seemed to be a peacefull poll, people woke up the following day to a total shutdown of the Internet, as well as telecommunications services such as messaging and an independent foreign radio station, Radio France Internation (RFI) signal. DR Congo authorities justified it by saying the Internet shutdown was to curb rumor mongering among citizens ahead of the much-anticipated election result.

During the Internet shutdown period, the pressure to restore the Internet signal was being mounted on DR Congo authorities by the United States, the European Union, and several other Internet rights advocacy groups. After the longest 20 days, the Internet signal was restored on Saturday 19 of January 2019.


GABON

Gabon had an Internet shutdown on January 7th, accompanied by a military coup attempt.This Internet shutdown affected main telecommunications operators of the country, including Gabon Telecom, Libertis and Airtel, ltd. In less than 24 hours the coup attempt was averted while a few of the soldiers who took part in the coup were either killed or arrested.

Internet without Borders, Paradigm Initiative, and other Internet rights advocacy groups have since condemned the act by the Gabonese government.


ZIMBABWE

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Image Source: Africa.com Zimbabwe Turns to VPN after Shutdown
On January 14th, Zimbabwe's government ordered an Internet shutdown due to violent mass protests against economic hardship. After president's announcement on increasing fuel price by 150 percent on January 12; various Unions in Zimbabwe launched a three-day nationwide strike as a response. Sensing a violent protest, the Minister of State Security, ordered a 3-day shutdown.

On Wednesday 16th, the Internet was restored for about 30 minutes, after that it was shut down again. During this 30 minutes period, many Zimbabweans seized the opportunity to download VPN, even though government blocked a number of these VPN services. 

Meanwhile, many human rights organisations condemned the act. the Zimbabwean Chapter of the Media Institute of South Africa (MISA) wrote to the Minister of State Security asking to end the shutdown and approached the High Court on the violation of the constitutional provision. 

In those days, the coalition that represents more than 175 launched the #KeepItOn campaign on social media in order to pressure the Zimbabwean government into restoring the Internet. Internet was restored after the High Court ordered the government to restore the Internet fully on January 19th 2019.

WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM THIS?


2017 saw a total of 108 shutdowns, while 183 shutdowns were recorded in 2018. Although several academicians and political analysts have predicted that authoritarism can be challenged through the Internet, it is believed that they do not consider the vulnerability of the Internet. Nonetheless, Internet shutdowns are being used by oppressive governments as a tool to curb the freedom of expression of citizens and media.

As David Kaye UN Special Rapporteur said "A general network shutdown is in clear violation of international law and cannot be justified by any means. Shutdowns are damaging out only for the people access to information but also for their access to basic services."



By Temitope Taiwo. 
Edited by Eileen Cejas and Hadassah Louis

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