Sudan’s Bad Laws, Internet Censorship and Repressed Civil Liberties

By Khattab Hamad and CIPESA Writer | 

On December 19, 2021, the third anniversary of the start of the uprising that overthrew former Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir, protests against the current military rulers rocked the capital Khartoum. Yet these demonstrations are only a small part of the north African country’s challenges, as it remains saddled with a slew of repressive laws that undermine civil liberties, with the digital civic space particularly under attack.

Sudan’s 2019 constitution grants citizens the right to privacy (article 55) and to free expression (article 57) and “the right to access the internet” (article 57(2)). As of December 2020, Sudan had 34.2 million mobile subscriptions while internet subscriptions stood at 13.7 million, representing a penetration of 31%. Sudan has the most affordable mobile internet in Africa and is ranked among the five least expensive countries for mobile internet globally.

Despite the constitutional guarantees and proliferation of technology, a new briefing paper by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) shows that the state of digital rights remains precarious, with the cybercrimes law enabling the military rulers to harass dissenters and critics under the guise of fighting false information online. 

Frequent internet shutdowns remain a constant reminder that the government will go to great lengths to control access to and use of digital technologies for mobilisation. In the last three years, six internet disruptions have been recorded, mostly ordered to thwart public protests against bad governance. The disruptions have had significant economic implications and only ended following the intervention of the courts. 

The brief explores the repressive elements of media and technology-related laws and how they have been used to undermine freedom of expression, access to information and press freedom in the aftermath of al-Bashir’s overthrow. Overall, while there have been some improvements since al-Bashir’s ouster, the current government continues to institute regressive measures such as news website blockages and censorship. The latest power machinations that saw the military stage a coup on October 25, 2021 are making matters worse. 

The Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA), which spearheaded the uprising that overthrew al-Bashir, extensively used digital technologies to disseminate news about the uprising and to mobilise citizens to attend protests. The military rulers that succeeded Bashir seem to have realised the power of technology in mobilisation and embarked on continuous disruption of the internet, in addition to instituting other measures to curtail online organising, freedom of expression, and the free flow of information online.

Bashir’s dictatorship initiated internet disruptions in view of public protests calling for his overthrow, but the government that succeeded him has been more prolific in utilising shutdowns to try and shut off criticism and protests. 

The longest internet disruption in Sudan’s history was recorded in 2019 and lasted 37 days. During protests around the time the shutdown was initiated, more than 100 protesters were killed. The latest shutdown started on October 25, 2021 and lasted 25 days. It was instituted after Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan seized control of the government. The shutdown was ended by a court order on November 11.

In July 2021, Sudanese authorities blocked more than 30 local news websites in the run up to protests demanding the resignation of the government, a move that severely undermined the right to expression and access to information.

Meanwhile, the cybercrime law of 2020 punishes publishing “lies” and “fake news” online with a heavy penalty of four years imprisonment, or flogging, or both. This law has been used by the military to silence activists and critical state officials. Even Lt. Gen. Burhan has this year invoked it to bring a suit against a prominent critic. The Press and Publications Law of 2009 equally has repressive provisions and was last August controversially invoked to suspendAlitibaha and Alsayha newspapers.

In 2020, Sudan issued the National security law amendment of 2020, article 25 of which leaves latitude for staff of intelligence agencies to violate citizens’ privacy by giving the Sudanese General Intelligence Service “the right to request information, data, documents or things from anyone to check it or take it” without a court order. Last October, military forces that staged a coup appeared to use this provision to search people’s phones in the streets to delete documentation of human rights violations perpetuated by security forces.

See the policy brief for further details on Sudan’s Bad Laws, Internet Censorship and Repressed Civil Liberties.

How Telecom Companies in Africa Can Respond Better to Internet Disruptions

By Victor Kapiyo |
In recent years, disruptions to the internet and social media applications have emerged as a common and growing trend of digital repression especially in authoritarian countries in Africa. Since 2019, countries such as Algeria, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zimbabwe have either restricted or blocked access to the entire internet.
Internet disruptions are often ordered by governments requiring intermediaries such as telecommunications and internet service providers to slow internet speeds, block commonly-used social media sites, or block all internet access. As internet disruptions become widespread across the continent, it is important to examine the role of internet intermediaries in facilitating or impeding them.
A February 2021 brief by CIPESA shines the spotlight on intermediaries’ responses to government orders and indicates that while the intermediaries facilitate transactions, access to online information and services, and provide platforms for interaction, expression and citizen participation, they are usually caught up in the overarching control of their activities by the autocratic governance of host governments who usually place political control and dominance over the enjoyment of digital rights.
Consequently, intermediaries’ responses to internet disruption orders on the continent have almost always been of quiet obedience. Most have failed to take any steps to push back against government excesses. Airtel (Chad and Uganda), Africell (Uganda), Gabon Telecom, MTN (Cameroon and Uganda), Tigo Chad, and Zimbabwe’s Econet Wireless are among those that unquestioningly acquiesced to censorship orders by governments in compliance with their license conditions but also to safeguard their business interests. They appeared to remain silent even in the face of pressing demands to restore the internet, and in some instances denied having blocked the internet on their networks.
However, other intermediaries such as MTN Benin, Orange Guinea, and Lesotho’s Econet and Vodacom pushed back. These intermediaries shared publicly the government letters ordering disruptions, identified the government officials ordering the shutdowns, and disclosed the basis for the shutdowns. In some instances they engaged with authorities to make the case for maintaining uninterrupted access, resisted or declined to implement unlawful orders, apologized to the public for disruptions, or even compensated their customers for the downtime arising from the disruptions.
While some of these steps are laudable, more needs to be done by local intermediaries to resist future shutdowns, uphold consumer protection, and promote respect for human rights online. Many of these intermediaries seem to lack the backbone to resist or challenge in court the legality of internet shutdown directives. It remains problematic that they seem to put their business interests first, while paying limited attention to the human rights, social and economic implications of internet disruptions.
The CIPESA brief recommends that intermediaries improve transparency reporting; always insist on written instructions and orders from authorities, and promptly make these orders public; expand their partnerships and engagements with civil society and join key platforms that aim to collaboratively advance a free and open internet.
The brief also recommends that intermediaries give users sufficient notice of impending disruptions; engage regulators and push back against licensing conditions (and laws governing the telecoms sector) that are vague, or that could potentially lead to the violation of human rights; and speak out publicly about the harms which network disruptions cause to their subscribers and to the intermediaries themselves.
Further, intermediaries should develop and make public policies that specifically state their position on shutdowns and how they address any shutdown orders from governments; and strive to comply with the UN Business and Human Rights Principles (UNBHR).
The brief also calls upon individuals and the business community to challenge the actions of intermediaries before national, regional and international mechanisms for accountability and compensation of losses incurred as a result of their actions.
See the brief here.

Good News, Bad News: A Story of Internet Shutdowns in Togo And Ethiopia

By Juliet Nanfuka |

The pushback against internet shutdowns in Africa received a boost last month when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice ruled that the 2017 internet shutdown in Togo was illegal. This followed another win just over a year ago when, in January 2019, the Zimbabwe High Court ruled that the state-initiated internet shutdown that same month was illegal.

However, barely a week after the ECOWAS ruling, Ethiopia  initiated a nationwide shutdown, thus serving a reminder of the persistent threat of internet shutdowns on the continent. Ethiopia has a history of repeated network disruptions, including during national high school exams, but mostly as a means to stifle public protests. Prior to the latest disruption, last year a 10-day nationwide disruption was initiated following the assassination of six top government officials.

The latest disruption comes on the heels of protests triggered by the murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular musician and democracy activist. Between January and March 2020, millions of Ethiopians in the western Oromia region were similarly disconnected from the internet and were in the midst of a government-imposed shutdown of internet and phone services and thus could not readily access information, including Covid-19 news.

Ethiopia’s shutdown also bears some traits with the Togolese shutdown of 2017, which was initiated following the announcement of planned anti-government protests by members of the opposition and resulted in internet access being disrupted during September 5–11, 2017. In 2019, the digital rights advocacy group Access Now led a coalition of eight organisations, including CIPESA, in filing an amici curiae (friends of the court)  brief in a lawsuit filed by Amnesty International Togo and other applicants.

The ruling by the ECOWAS court acknowledges that the internet shutdown, in addition to being illegal, was also an affront on the right of freedom to expression, echoing a 2016 resolution by the United Nations on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet. Further, Access Now reports that the court ordered the government of Togo to pay two million CAF (USD 3,459) to the plaintiffs as compensation, and to take all the necessary measures to guarantee the implementation of safeguards with respect to the right to freedom of expression of the Togolese people.

In both Ethiopia and Togo, old habits die hard. Last February, when Togolese citizens went to vote, authorities disrupted access to messaging services (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram) on election day after the polls had closed. The disruption was imposed despite the call by local and international rights groups urging the government to ensure an open, secure, and accessible internet throughout the election period.

A statement issued by the #KeepItOn coalition in the wake of latest disruption noted that the Ethiopian government has a responsibility to protect freedom of expression and access to information rights of all persons in the country, as enshrined in its national constitution, as well as regional and international frameworks including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory. It added: “The government should be working to make sure Ethiopians connect to the internet, not the contrary.”

Almost two weeks after the disruption was initiated, reports started emerging that internet was partly restored. Digital rights advocates have noted that disruptions undermine the economic benefits of the internet, disrupt access to essential services such as health care, and often fail to meet the established test for restrictions on freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly under the ICCPR.

The network disruption does not help Ethiopia’s reputation which is battling to shake off its autocratic history.  The Horn of Africa country, which was due to hold parliamentary elections this August, has since postponed these plans but continues wading through political and economic reforms, some of which impact on internet access and digital rights.

A study of network disruptions in Sub-Saharan Africa showed that the less democratic a government is, the more likely it is to order an internet disruption. Both Ethiopia and Togo are characterised as authoritarian on the Economist Democracy Index.

The decision by the ECOWAS court marks a notch in the push back against internet shutdowns in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other cases against shutdowns have been lodged in various courts, including in Uganda and Cameroon, and serve as reference points for the necessity of strategic litigation in fighting network disruptions. However, judging from the experience of countries like Ethiopia, which have repeatedly disrupted networks, the strategic litigation needs to be complimented by several other efforts in fighting the scourge of shutdowns in the region and to become a thing of the past.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay 

Togo: #KeepItOn During The Elections

Joint Call |

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has joined a call on the Government of Togo to keep digital communications accessible during its upcoming elections.

The country goes to the polls on February 22, 2020, marking the first presidential election since the amendment to the Constitution on term limits. The amendment capped the presidential mandate to two five-year terms. However, it would not apply retrospectively meaning that President Faure Gnassingbe, who succeeded his late father in 2005, can stand for the upcoming election, and again in 2025.  In 2017, internet access was disrupted during protests against the family’s 50-year rule of the country.

Access Now, the #KeepItOn campaign lead states that Togo should follow the footsteps of its neighbors GhanaNigeria, and Senegal who have shown that an open, secure, and accessible internet can foster civic participation during the electioneering processes and beyond, safeguard election results, and promote democracy.

See the full joint call here: English and French.

World Press Freedom Day: Exploring the Relationship Between Media, Network Disruptions and Disinformation

By Juliet Nanfuka |
This year marks the 26th celebration of WPFD and is themed, “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”. The day will be celebrated in more than 100 countries in addition to the main event that will take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at the African Union Headquarters; and will serve as a platform to discuss current challenges faced by media during elections, as well as the media’s potential in supporting peace and reconciliation processes.
In his annual WPFD message, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has recently stated: “No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information. It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.”
Unfortunately, the media and ordinary citizens in several countries are increasingly facing limitations to their freedom of expression, access to information, and the right to associate. This has been witnessed in the  Sub-Saharan context where up to 22 African governments have ordered network disruptions in the last four years – while since January 2019, seven African countries – Algeria, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), Chad, Gabon, Sudan and Zimbabwe – have experienced various forms of network disruptions.

See Despots and Disruptions: Five Dimensions of Internet Shutdowns in Africa

Many of these states have often cited the need to preserve public order and national security as the basis for their disruption of digital communications. The necessity to control fake news, misinformation, and hate speech are also cited in justifying the blockage of access to the internet. However, these actions are also a direct affront to media freedom, often undermining the ability of journalists to gather and impart information, to file reports, contact sources, or verify stories.
This goes against the premise of democracy, particularly at a time when journalists need to robustly play their role as society’s watchdog and when citizens need access to a diverse pool of information to inform their decision-making. In an age of increasing disinformation including by state actors, it is fundamental that the channels of communication, and information sourcing, remain accessible by all to establish the credibility of information and to counter false information with facts.
To mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day (WPFD),  the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) will participate at the global celebration in Ethiopia and at a national event in Uganda to speak about the relationship between network disruptions (such as internet shutdowns and social media blockages), freedom of expression and the role of the media.
Among the sessions CIPESA is participating on at the main WPFD event is one titled “Understanding Electoral Information Flows: Mapping the Impact of Digital Technology from Network Disruptions to Disinformation” which is hosted by The Global Network Initiative (GNI). It  will map the different ways that digital technology impacts election-relevant information flows, as well as the inter-relationships between these impacts with the goal of developing a systems and data flowchart that can help policy makers, companies, elections administrators, elections observers, media, and other stakeholders identify and mitigate risks, improve planning and coordination, and enhance transparency around their efforts to support elections.
This will be followed by a CIPESA-organised  session titled “Keeping It On at Election Times: Navigating the Dilemma, Mapping Good Practices,” which will discuss trends and implications of network disruptions on journalists, activists, and civil society organisations. They will assess current efforts to address the policy gaps that exist and opportunities for expanding the network of advocates against internet shutdowns. Further, the session will explore and best practices of how countries can keep communications on at contentious times such as during elections.
The various sessions will include representatives from the World Web Foundation, Media Foundation for West Africa, Global Network Initiative (GNI), Addis Ababa University, Gobena Street / Addis Zebye, Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), International Media Support (IMS) and Facebook.
In Uganda, CIPESA will speak at a session titled “The impact of internet shutdowns on freedom of expression and the right to information during elections”. The Ugandan event is organised by the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) and various partners who include CIPESA, the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the American Embassy in Uganda, the Human Rights Network of Journalists, and Freedom House.
CIPESA World Press Freedom Day Sessions
Ethiopia:

  • May 3 (Parallel Session 11): Understanding Electoral Information Flows: Mapping the Impact of Digital Technology from Network Disruptions to Disinformation
    • Time: 14h00 – 15h30
    • Location: Medium Conference room
  • May 3 (Parallel Session 16): Keeping It On at Election Times: Navigating the Dilemma, Mapping Good Practices
    • Time: 16h00 – 17h30
    • Location: Small Conference Room 3

Uganda
 

  • May 3: The impact of internet shutdowns on freedom of expression and the right to information during elections
    • Time: 14.15 – 15.00
    • Venue: Golf Course Hotel, Kampala
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