Internet shutdowns in Africa: "It is like being cut off from the world"

By APCNews 16 January 2019

On 11 January, while researching the current wave of internet shutdowns in Africa, we contacted our Harare-based colleague Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha, coordinator of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms project, to get his insights. He responded three days later:

"Sorry for the delay, I was experiencing outages myself. Zimbabwe is on shutdown."

Throughout the African continent, where many APC members and partners are based, recent weeks have seen a fresh spate of internet shutdowns that have hindered public access to information and communications. Sudan, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are three of the latest countries to experience government-led restrictions on internet access.

In Zimbabwe, the most recent addition to the list, constriction gave way to a total shutdown on 14 January. That day, APC received a phone call from Koliwe Majama, a colleague based in Harare, who confirmed that from 9:20 a.m. onwards, internet access was blocked. As of publication of this article, service has been temporarily restored. Reports suggest that the Minister of State in the President's Office for National Security issued a directive using the Interception of Communications Act to suspend internet services across all services and by all providers, meaning even mobile networks were not available. 

"There is now a renewed civil unrest due to hikes in fuel costs and socioeconomic hardship in Zimbabwe," human rights activist and African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG) alumnus Nomagugu Nyathi told us. "We had a complete shutdown from yesterday morning and we have only just been connected. But the over 24 hours without internet had a very isolated feeling. I was trying to reach out to friends outside of Zimbabwe to Google ways to bypass the shutdown, especially for WhatsApp," she explained. "It was expensive to reach out to them via direct call.  It was also inconvenient, frustrating because then I could not go on about my day-to-day online activities. Most of all, it felt like power and the right to organise have been taken away. I felt that anything could happen to us in the country and the world would have no clue," she said, adding, "This is kind of like a prison."

Strive Masiyiwa, the founder of Zimbabwe's largest telecommunications company Econet Wireless, confirmed that his network has been blocking internet service on government orders. He took to Twitter on 16 January to issue a statement to customers, citing a "written warrant" from the President's Office to suspend telecommunications. "As an organisation we are obliged to act when directed to do so in terms of the law," said Masiyiwa. "We urge others to respect that this is a matter beyond our control." He went on to note the steep consequences of failing to comply with the government-mandated interruption: local management could face "three years imprisonment" for resisting. But the legal standing of the warrant remains up for debate. The Media Institute for Africa's Zimbabwe chapter, for example, argues that the Interception of Communications Act does not contain the necessary provisions for such a blanket shutdown.

The blackout in Zimbabwe caps off a string of internet disruptions in the region. On 21 December 2018, the Sudanese government blocked internet access to popular social media sites in an attempt to quell nationwide protests triggered by economic instability and price hikes. Gabon experienced an internet shutdown on 7 January 2019 in the wake of an attempted military coup. A few days later, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) saw widespread disruption of internet connectivity following the 30 December 2018 elections. Togo, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Chad are among other African countries that faced internet restrictions in 2018.

"It is like being cut off from the world"

"It is like being cut off from the world", Françoise Mukuku, digital rights activist and former executive director of Si jeunesse savait, a DRC-based young women's organisation, told us from Kinshasa. "The frustration of not knowing when it will be back, topped up with the shame of having to call your friend in Europe, giving them your password so they can access your email on your behalf and retrieve the phone number of a very important contact. Almost in tears because you can't meet your work deadlines."

"Suddenly you are not able to browse on your mobile phone, you open up your laptop but still cannot connect," said Arsene Tungali, executive director of APC member Rudi International, also based in the DRC. "You call a friend to ask them whether they are able to connect to the internet, they tell you they wanted to call you as well to check. You then realise that the internet has been shut down and it's like you are going ten centuries behind, the world stops in front of you as you can no longer read your emails, cannot check your WhatsApp messages, cannot browse any other social media. It is so frustrating. You feel powerless and weakened by those who have power."

"I've never experienced an internet shutdown. However, going by the new internet paradigm in Africa, I would not be surprised to experience it soon," said Nwachukwu Egbunike, a Nigerian blogger and editor for Global Voices Sub-Saharan Africa. "I'm not a prophet of doom, but going by the current atmosphere as Nigeria prepares for elections and the government's antics in repressing free speech, this is likely to happen, here and in many more countries in the near future."

This disturbing trend has been growing throughout the continent in recent years as repressive regimes realise the power of internet disruption to stifle public debate, social action and dissent.  

The Arab Spring, which arguably revealed the extent of the web's revolutionary potential in the region, also marked the beginning of countrywide shutdowns. "I actually experienced a total internet shutdown during the 2011 revolution in Egypt", AfriSIG alumnus Noha Ashraf shared. "It was like we got back to the early 90s when you could only contact a person via landline, the whole country was isolated, we could only hear the news from the government media (which were actually fake news), while the truth was that the protesters were increasing day after day, their demands were getting more specific and their voices were getting louder. Everyone was terrified, especially the ones who live abroad and have relatives in Egypt. I have no idea how business operated in these days of blackout but I heard afterwards about the huge losses. Harming the citizens by shutting down the internet to silence protesters was such a shame and misuse of the authority, and it cost (former dictator Hosni) Mubarak the presidency."

Silencing dissent in Egypt, however, did not end with the overthrow of Mubarak. In fact, the current regime has passed legislation that targets online media, websites and bloggers, illustrating that repressive governments who already effectively control mainstream media are now also actively seeking to close the spaces for freer association and expression that exist online. 

These blackouts have only become more frequent and widespread in the last few years. In 2016, 11 of the 56 global internet shutdowns happened in Africa. In 2017, there were 12 instances of internet disruption in nine different countries in the region while at least eight countries were affected by service disruption in 2018. The shutdowns have also become increasingly sophisticated, with governments targeting specific regions or communities. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), internet cuts or restrictions on access to online social networks are now "widely used in Africa as censorship tools to gag dissent and prevent coverage of unrest within a sector of the population." 

The ambivalence of African governments 

This string of shutdowns demonstrates the ongoing ambivalence that many African governments have with regard to the internet, APC's Anriette Esterhuysen explains. "On the one hand they are aware of the internet's benefits for economic development, but on the other hand they fear internet-enabled social mobilisation and challenges to poor governance. A case in point is Sudan, a country that recently experienced a shutdown, mere months after hosting the 2018 African Internet Governance Forum on the theme: Development of the Digital Economy and Emerging Technologies in Africa”. 

The ambivalence of authorities is also evident in the recent legislation and policies implemented in the region: sweeping measures enacted to control the internet, and particularly social media, are often justified in the name of protecting citizens online. In Kenya, for example, the new cybercrimes law was designed to "outlaw the abuse of people on social media" but has been critiqued as providing a back door to government-led censorship and repression of digital civil liberties.

Other governments have resorted to mandating licences and imposing taxes on online platforms to achieve the same ends. Ugandan President Museveni introduced a social media levy in July 2018, which forces users to pay Shs200 (over USD 0.50) a day to access popular services such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and Skype. In Tanzania, as of April 2018, bloggers must be certified by the government and pay the equivalent of USD 930 to license a blog as part of a set of new regulations, which also affect social media and online television and radio streaming. These policies not only limit usership of the internet by barring entry to many who are unable to pay the prohibitively high fees, they also provide governments with "unfettered power to police the web.”

According to Berhan Taye from the KeepItOn coalition, also an AfriSIG alumnus, as shutdowns are becoming more localised, there may be many more that have not been documented. "We have seen incidents where just one neighbourhood is cut off from the internet while the rest of the country has access. And if the way we started 2019 is an indication, it seems we are going to witness many more shutdowns and other digital rights violations in the African continent. This last two weeks should be an alarm to the digital rights community that we must sharpen our policy, advocacy, and tech tools to fight against internet shutdowns."

Internet shutdowns are symptomatic of a broader crackdown on communication and online rights and freedoms on the continent. As RSF highlights, the targeting of online and offline media outlets and journalists is a growing problem which, combined with internet disruption, has a chilling effect on free expression in the region. Journalists who cover stories around women’s rights or gender issues often suffer severe reprisals. In Somalia, journalists who interview rape victims are liable to be jailed on defamation charges. In Uganda, a journalist was abducted and beaten after pointing out that the president had not kept his promise to distribute tampons in schools. More generally, any reporting critical of the authorities tends to be poorly received in sub-Saharan Africa, as shown by the one-year jail sentence passed on appeal for Baba Alpha, a TV journalist in Niger who has a reputation for drawing attention to bad government practices. After completing his sentence, he was expelled to neighbouring Mali for being a "threat to internal state security." 

Beyond these significant social and political impacts of blackouts and censorship, there are also economic and technological consequences. Recent studies have shown that internet shutdowns have a measurable effect on countries' gross domestic product (GDP), with a report by APC member organisation CIPESA highlighting that "Sub-Saharan Africa lost up to USD 237 million to Internet shutdowns since 2015." Blocking particular websites or platforms can also result in the unintentional restriction of content hosted on the same server. The Internet Society notes that "the use of traffic hijacking to block platforms at the national level has even led to global unavailability of a service." Shutdowns, furthermore, have the potential "to generate systemic risks." The Netblocks Mapping Internet Freedom platform helps track the economic losses of these shutdowns.

What can we do?

Protecting the exercise of human rights online is crucial to preserving the internet as an enabling space and tool for Africans. The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms states that "content blocking, filtering, removal and other technical or legal limits on access to content constitute serious restrictions on freedom of expression and can only be justified if they strictly comply with international human rights law" and affirms "the rights of all to engage in individual or collective expression of oppositional, dissenting, reactive or responsive views, values or interests through the internet." Far-reaching measures like the ones many Africans are experiencing undermine the right to engage freely online and necessitate a cohesive, multistakeholder response. Digital rights activists have been consistently monitoring, responding and holding governments accountable for these actions, but would benefit greatly from the support and collaboration of the technical community, media and wider human rights community to bolster their efforts. The KeepItOn campaign is one important effort on this front, bringing together civil society organisations, activists and citizens to combat this practice. The private sector also has an important role to play in countering internet shutdowns and censorship; it is essential that they challenge and resist legislation that can compel them to disrupt services. 

From its outset, the internet was designed to be a decentralised network, with routers able to dynamically find alternate paths to deliver data packets. This original design has become twisted over the years, as more and more countries redesign their telecommunications infrastructure to ensure that all data exiting a country goes through only a few points, making shutdowns feasible and straightforward. We must strive to have several internet service providers (ISPs) in countries and to maintain internet exchange points (IXPs) at a local level, so that it becomes more complicated to prevent data from flowing. If you experience a shutdown, it is important that you document when it happened, what was blocked and at what point (using, for example, a tool like Traceroute to see where data packets stop). Since governments are reluctant to recognise their responsibility for shutdowns, we must collectively find ways to gather evidence, document impacts and share information to better resist them. 

Read also: #KeepitOn: Joint letter on keeping the internet open and secure in Zimbabwe


« Go back