That the presidential election which took place in the Republic of Congo on 21 March 2021 would re-elect Denis Sassou Nguesso was a given. Less certain was whether access to the internet, in particular access to social media, would be interrupted on election day, and in the days that followed as it was in 2016. In the end it was. For three days – as voting, counting and the results were announced – the internet remained switched off.
In 2020, several African countries including Burundi, Togo, Guinea and Tanzania cut off internet access during elections. The blocking of social media by the government is often justified on the grounds of “protecting national security”, or more recently, to “fight against the spread of fake news and hate speech”. In its recent decision to suspend and ban Twitter in Nigeria, the government justified its actions by stating that the platform was enabling “misinformation and fake news to spread… [with] real world violent consequences”.
But these sorts of justifications should not deceive anyone. Governments that block access to the internet or social media are in fact seeking to better control the flow of information online. But this choice to censor is counterproductive. Not only are the economic implications important – according to the latest estimates available, internet shutdowns have cost the continent more than US$2 billion – but as, if not more, importantly internet shutdowns disrupt democratic participation and processes.
The authorities and their enablers
The process that enables internet shutdowns is covered by a veil of opacity. Due to a lack of technical expertise, governments usually turn to internet service providers (ISPs) for help in disrupting telecommunications. But it is difficult to know precisely which authorities issue the order to shutdown or throttle the internet. Organisations fighting internet shutdowns must be resourceful to obtain this crucial information, which enables citizens to hold their government officials to account. In 2018, legal action brought by Internet Sans Frontières against mobile operators in Chad, obtained written proof of the order sent by the Ministry of the Interior to all ISPs.
Transparency from ISPs themselves can also help lift this veil of obscurity further. Under pressure from civil society initiatives, such as the Ranking Digital Rights project, many of these companies publish more specific information about the connectivity disruption orders they receive from governments. Orange issued a press released around the 2020 Guinean election to this effect for example. Understanding who orders and facilitates internet shutdowns is an important piece of the puzzle. But it is equally important to prevent the occurrence of these telecommunications outages in the first place.
According to the UN Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human Rights, cutting off access to the internet is a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression. This is even more so when this act of censorship takes place during an election period, a critically important moment in democratic life.
Faced with media landscapes under the strict control of autocratic governments, citizens of many African countries have found space for free expression online. For some, it is the first time that they can speak without filter on the governance of their country and question the government propaganda. The internet and use of smartphones are also key tools for opposition parties and civil society groups to collect and centralise information about anomalies observed during an electoral process.
The democratisation of online communication tools and access to bandwidth offers an increasingly formidable electoral transparency tool for civil society and citizens of African countries. Citizen electoral monitoring initiatives, have emerged in Cote d’Ivoire (2010), Togo (2013), Kenya (2017), and Guinea (2020), to give just a few examples. All have offered significant contributions to exposing the existence of fraud, which in turn have called into question the results claimed by the authorities. But blocking the internet or social networks during an election prevents them from being able to do so and degrades the credibility and sincerity of the vote. The #KeepItOn coalition, which was created to fight internet shutdowns, are campaigning for the inclusion of internet access in the assessment of elections by national and international observation missions.
Keeping it on
The internet challenges our existing social and governance structures to adapt or reinvent themselves. For some of them, the challenge seems insurmountable, and censorship becomes a refuge. But this refuge is only temporary. Governments that prefer to censor, for fear of a free flow of information online, would be better served by putting this energy into innovating in their relationships with citizens and voters. In the decades to come, and as more and more Africans come online, the internet must stay on.
Julie Owono is the executive director of Internet Sans Frontières and a member of the Facebook Oversight Board.