In August 2021, Zambia became the latest country to restrict citizens’ access to social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp as the country went to the polls. Citing the need to stop the spread of election misinformation, the Zambian government disrupted the internet in an election that saw an opposition politician defeat the incumbent president.
The disruption of digital communications is a recurring theme in numerous countries in as states pursue their ambitions of controlling information and communication flow during elections and other times of public protest.
Between January and May 2021, digital advocacy group Access Now documented at least 50 internet shutdowns in 21 countries, including in several African countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Niger and Congo Brazzaville. However, there has also been pushback against these shutdowns by various civil society and digital rights actors, alongside users turning to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent blockages.
Susan Mwape, an Election Analyst and Executive Director of Common Cause-Zambia, noted that in the lead up to the August 2021 elections in Zambia, the government imposed restrictions on public gatherings in the name of enforcing Covid-19 prevention measures. Consequently, citizens resorted to digital platforms to engage in election-related issues.
Threatened by the increased online engagement and mobilisation, the government hurriedly adopted the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act, 2021. The Act was passed amidst criticism that it was primarily aimed at policing cyberspace, gagging freedom of expression and speech, and stifling internet use by opposition groups and supporters ahead of the general elections.
Anticipating a shutdown ahead of the elections, Mwape said capacity building and advocacy activities were conducted in collaboration with the KeepItOn coalition.
“We trained over 70 people – civil society, journalists, citizens and frontline defenders on secure tools they could use to stay online. But we also wrote an open letter to the President on why it was important to keep the internet on,” Susan Mwape.
Capacity building in circumvention techniques in anticipation of shutdowns has become a common strategy across the world. In Iraq, Hayder Hamzoz, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of INSM Network, said efforts in this regard not only cover use of specific tools but prior installation of applications to overcome “governments’ first course of action” which is often to disable application stores where circumvention tools can be accessed.
Indeed, this was the case in Uganda, which has experienced various forms of election-related network disruptions – the most recent being a total shutdown during the January 2021 general elections and an ongoing block on Facebook access.
Allan Ssempala Kigozi, the Head of Legal Affairs at Unwanted Witness, explained that while a shutdown was anticipated in the country, civil society actors held a number of engagements with telecommunications companies and regulators on the need to keep the internet on.
“We wanted the government to understand that as the country was heading to the polls, an internet shutdown should not be the way to go because it has a wide-ranging impact on the economy beyond the misinformation that the government says it was trying to avert,” said Kigozi. He further noted that despite the shutdown, there was still an opportunity for misinformation to flow through text messages and added that upon the reinstatement of access, recorded videos and photos were shared thus maintaining the misinformation.
Despite having a long history of disruptions, Chad last April held an election without disrupting the internet. Abdeldjalil Bachar Bong, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of House of Africa in Chad, attributed this to advocacy campaigns including by the #KeepItOn movement, which wrote an open letter to the President and telecommunications providers on the importance of keeping the internet on.
“We told them that shutting down the internet is not a solution. The solution is to educate the public on the benefits of using the internet,” he said. This was complemented by skills and knowledge building efforts targeting human rights defenders and civil society on how to use circumvention tools in the event of a shutdown.
For their part, circumvention tools developers such as TunnelBear have worked with digital rights groups and activists to ensure access to their platform in the event of a shutdown including through providing free bandwidth to use TunnelBear. Shames Abdelwahab, the Advocacy and Community Manager at TunnelBear, noted that in countries where they have done this, there has been a huge spike in the usage of the service. TunnelBear also provides free VPN accounts to activists on the ground. “The aim is to ensure digital activists keep online as they advocate against internet shutdowns,” said Abdelwahab.
Manson Gwanyanya, a researcher with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, noted that with increasing cases of internet shutdowns happening across the globe, more efforts including increased company transparency are being made to ensure that telecommunication companies and internet service providers are held accountable for their actions.
Blocking the internet ahead of the elections undermines electoral transparency, severely hinders the work of journalists, and denies citizens’ access to badly needed information. Governments should thus ensure the internet remains open to provide an opportunity for opposition actors to reach the electorate with information and for a pluralistic media to flourish.
Disinformation on social media has been a growing concern in global politics for several years, and it is now exploding across Sub-Saharan Africa, where social media-based disinformation campaigns are increasingly being deployed by foreign entities and governments to influence narratives.
Several socio-political and economic factors provide fertile ground for disinformation to thrive in African countries. The exploding youth population – with many coming online for the first time through social media – growth in the use and availability of internet-enabled mobile phones, ethno-religious conflicts, and insecurity are some of the factors that have contributed to the large amount of information accessible via digital media and provided new, fast-moving channels for spreading and amplifying false information.
This growth in disinformation in the region has presented a new stress test for emerging internet policy and legislative responses. For instance, in March 2020, Ethiopia enacted the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation to address hate speech and disinformation, which have historically troubled the country. However, it has been argued that whereas government regulation is legitimate to control hate speech, Ethiopia’s new law poses a threat to freedom of expression and access to information online.
In Cameroon, under the Law Relating to Cyber Security and Cyber Criminality, it is an offense to publish and propagate information online “without being able to attest its veracity” or truthfulness. In a July 2020 press conference, Cameroon’s Communication Minister, René Emmanuel Sadi, expressed concerns over “irresponsible” use of social media to tarnish the image of public officials or sabotage government actions and warned that those who continued to propagate such information on social media platforms would face the heavy arm of the law.
Other countries like Zimbabwe and Tanzania have broader media laws that have been used to target fake news. The various laws have been criticised for posing a threat to digital rights, especially when deployed as tools against critical opinion, the media, and dissent in African countries with democratic deficits.
Many African countries, including Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), continue to grapple with disinformation, with a high risk of online activity resulting in offline harm. This report reviews the situation in these countries, where – despite relatively low connectivity levels – disinformation presents a considerable concern.
As of 2017, Cameroon had 19.7 million mobile phone subscribers representing a penetration rate of 85%, while internet penetration was 35.6%. Meanwhile, as of December 2019, the DR Congo had an internet penetration rate of 19.2%, while mobile phone penetration was 42%.
Conflict Awareness and Disinformation
Citizens in Cameroon and the DR Congo rely on a wide range of traditional sources of information (including print and broadcast media), alongside online sources to keep abreast of social, economic and political issues. However, social media has come to play an increasing role on issues related to conflict because mainstream media is censored by their governments.
In Cameroon, tensions between Anglophone and Francophone regions date back to the country’s independence in 1961. Over the years, there have been fatal violence and protest action against the continued “francophonisation” and marginalisation of English speakers who say that the central government privileges the majority French-speaking population.
In 2015, a video showing two women and two children being shot dead by soldiers in the Far North town of Zelevet started to circulate on social media. According to a July 2018 BBC Africa Eye investigation, the government initially dismissed the video as fake news. However, Amnesty International revealed credible evidence that the Cameroon military was responsible, prompting the authorities to retract and state that the 10 soldiers depicted in the video had been arrested and would be prosecuted. Five years after the incident, a military court convicted and sentenced the soldiers to imprisonment.
Whereas the BBC Africa Eye investigation into the shooting incident revealed that several people did not like to spread hate speech and graphic violence content online, sometimes they recognised that such content could include safety information, especially for those who live in conflict areas.
In the DR Congo, a history of armed conflict has left millions dead and the country destabilised, with continued violence perpetrated by several armed groups active in the region, including the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and numerous militias. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO) has operated in the region since 1999 and is the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world.
During the 2018 elections that had been long awaited, there were reports of widespread election irregularities, with competing political parties claiming to be in the lead as several unofficial tallies started to circulate on social media. Sponsored content from Google and Facebook falsely alleged that former President Joseph Kabila’s surrogate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, had won the elections. The ads were published before the official results announcement by the Electoral Commission, which had been delayed. There were internet shutdowns in key cities, which made it even harder for fact checkers to verify any information related to the elections.
Considering the elections had been postponed from November 2016 to December 2017, and then to April 2018, the circulation of false election results could have prolonged the cycle of instability.
Role of the Diaspora Community
The diaspora community is a huge contributor to the inflaming of tensions online in both countries, often through fake accounts that regularly share hateful and inciting content against rival political factions.
During the 2018 elections in Cameroon, there were several instances of social media posts from the diaspora claiming that long-serving President Paul Biya had died. Biya went on to win the disputed elections, and two years on, social media content, often from the diaspora, continues to fuel political and ethnic tensions.
As for the social media posts falsely claiming that Shadary had won the 2018 presidential election in DR Congo, considering the internet disruption at the time, indications are that the perpetrators of the sponsored ads and admins of the accounts in question were based in the diaspora. Lumumba aime LE CONGO (Lumumba loves Congo), which was among the key propagators of the ads, had been created just before the elections and traded on the likeness of Patrice Lumumba, a famous independence leader. Besides content claiming victory for Shadary, the page also shared posts from several fake domains or news aggregation websites like CongoActu24.com. This was another example in which disinformation had the potential to lead to offline harms within a fragile political environment.
Like in other African countries, Cameroon and DR Congo have seen a surge in Covid-19 disinformation online, some of it pegged on cultural, political and religious sensitivities including promotion of herbal remedies, steaming, alcohol, contradictory and speculative reports about treatments and/or confusing guidance about standard operating procedures (SOPs).
The spread of disinformation around diseases can be a public health risk, as has been the case in Cameroon and the DR Congo regarding Ebola and, more recently, Covid-19. Disease disinformation undermines confidence in underlying science, slows down sensitisation, politicises health activities and questions the motives of health officials.
DR Congo is no novice to pandemics, having borne the brunt of the Ebola outbreak between 2017 and 2019. In May 2020, France 24 News reported a Covid-19 fake news campaign in DR Congo. The France 24 reports were later corroborated by Facebook and DFRLab, which linked the network to a politician called Honore Mvula. The network carried several Covid-19 false claims attributed to public figures including French infectious disease expert Didier Raoult, French president Emmanuel Macron and Madagascar president Andry Rajoelina and these made rounds on Congolese Facebook pages, recording a high rate of engagement. Mvula denied the allegations against him. Facebook took down the pages.
Cameroon and DR Congo have a history of ordering internet disruptions on multiple occasions during public protests and elections. In January 2017, internet connectivity was restricted in the Anglophone region of Cameroon following dissent and calls for succession from the Francophone region. The disruption, which lasted for over 230 days until March 2018 is recorded as the longest internet shutdown on the continent.
Similarly, in the DR Congo, instability in the country has been continuously characterised by persistent internet shutdowns since December 2011. Following a relatively peaceful voting day on December 30, 2018, the government shut down the internet on December 31 and progressively, broadcast media, and expelled some international journalists reporting on the elections. The official reasons provided by policymakers were “to avoid fake results from circulating”.
According to analysts, the internet shutdown in Cameroon cost the economy USD 1.67 million per day, while the shutdown in DR Congo cost the economy USD 3 million per day.
Internet shutdowns during elections are a common and growing trend of digital repression especially in authoritarian countries in Africa, whose leaders have been in power for many years. When governments impose information blackouts or curtail the free flow of information online through other means, disinformation thrives as fact-checking and the production of counter-narratives are hampered. In the case of Cameroon and DR Congo, that disinformation, much of it originating from the diaspora, propagates hate speech and disinformation that threaten to exacerbate civil strife and undermine electoral integrity. In turn, the shutdowns and the disinformation propagated by state and non-state actors, are eroding technology’s potential to enhance electoral integrity, to civic engagement and the fight against diseases such as Covid-19.
Accounts of targeted messaging during elections have become common, and they are particularly concerning as the content of the messages is often misleading, out-rightly false, or inciting. This recent rise of online campaigning through social media platforms has thus raised further concerns about how the required data is obtained, the extent to which African democracies are vulnerable to foreign interference, the ways in which social media algorithms are prone to manipulation, and the ethics of using African countries as a testing ground for new digital technologies.
Whereas efforts to legislate against disinformation are human rights pressure points, alternative countermeasures, in collaboration with social media platform operators, hold some promise. In 2020, several sub Saharan African governments partnered with social media platforms and other intermediaries to fight Covid-19 disinformation. Earlier in 2018, Cameroon directly engaged with Facebook to explore opportunities for fighting the spread of false and misleading information within the country. Meanwhile, promoting digital literacy skills and fact checking capacity, and creating awareness about what is unacceptable content on platforms and how to report objectionable content, remain key needed actions. Hence efforts and other measures to combat disinformation and other harmful content, including around elections and in the fight against Covid-19, require closer collaboration between governments, civil society and platforms than we have witnessed this far.
Richard Ngamita is a Data Researcher who currently works on human rights, disinformation and espionage. He previously worked at Google with the Spam team. He has also led investigative research across health, agriculture and refugee movements.
Amidst a growing crackdown on media, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians, the Republic of Uganda will hold general elections on Thursday, January 14. With a dark history of internet and social media blocking during national events, and alarming reports of disruptions already emerging, Ugandan voters’ rights to access information and express opinion are under threat. The #KeepItOn coalition, via an open letter, is calling on the government to ensure open, accessible, and secure internet access for all throughout the election period and beyond.
“Shutting down or blocking the internet while reports of state violence and oppression are emerging is incredibly worrisome,” said Felicia Anthonio, Campaigner and #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now.“Uganda disconnected voters during the 2016 elections, and the #KeepItOn coalition is imploring authorities to set a new standard in 2021 by ensuring reliable, accessible internet to all — during this critical time, and hereafter.”
Access to the internet and social media platforms during the elections in Uganda will help foster transparency around the democratic process and promote active citizen participation. Access Now and 55 other organizations are urging the government of Uganda to:
Ensure that the internet, including social media and other digital communication platforms, remains open, accessible, and secure across Uganda throughout the election;
Ensure that mobile money, banking, and other financial avenues for transactions remain accessible and secure;
Order internet service providers to provide everyone with high-quality, secure, and unrestricted internet access; and
Order internet service providers to inform internet users of any potential disruptions and to take all reasonable steps to fix any identified disruptions likely to impact the quality of service they receive.
Internet shutdowns and blockings were a go-to tool for authorities during national events and protests in 2020, including in Myanmar, Burundi, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Belarus, and many other countries. The Ugandan general election will be the African continent’s first in the new decade, and has the potential to set the stage for all other national events that follow.
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 Ghana, Nigeria, 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.
Nouveau Rapport |
Au cours des quatre dernières années, pas moins 22 gouvernements africains ont ordonné des coupures du réseau Internet. Depuis le début de l’année 2019, six pays africains dont l’Algérie, la République Démocratique du Congo (RDC), le Tchad, le Gabon, le Soudan et le Zimbabwe ont déjà connu des coupures d’Internet.
Un nouveau rapport produit par le CIPESA (The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa) intitulé «Dictateurs et restrictions : cinq dimensions des coupures d’Internet en Afrique» souligne cependant que ces coupures d’Internet sont exclusivement opérées par les Etats les plus despotiques d’Afrique. Selon ce rapport, 77% des pays où les coupures d’Internet ont été opérées au cours des cinq dernières années sont classés comme autoritaires sur l’indice de démocratie produit par le service de renseignement économique de l’Economist (Economist Intelligence Unit). Hormis ceux-là, tous les autres pays africains qui ont procédé aux coupures de services de communications sont classés dans la catégorie des régimes hybrides, ce qui signifie qu’ils ont certains éléments de démocratie combinés à de fortes doses d’autoritarisme.
Les régimes autoritaires qui ont ordonné des coupures du réseau sont l’Algérie, le Burundi, la République Centrafricaine (RCA), le Cameroun, le Tchad, la RDC, le Congo (Brazzaville), l’Egypte, la Guinée équatoriale, le Gabon, l’Ethiopie, la Libye, la Mauritanie, le Niger, le Togo, le Soudan, et le Zimbabwe. Les régimes hybrides qui ont procédé à des coupures d’Internet comprennent la Gambie, le Mali, le Maroc, la Sierra Léone et l’Ouganda.
Quant aux pays classés comme autoritaires mais qui n’ont pas effectué de telles coupures, le rapport indique qu’il est probable que «l’Etat autoritaire soit si brutal et terrifiant que la société civile ou tout mouvement d’opposition ou de protestation – en ligne et hors ligne- soit étouffé dans l’œuf » ou alors que «les mesures de surveillance d’Internet en place rendent toute coupure inutile». Ces pays comprennent Djibouti, l’Erythrée et le Rwanda.
Le rapport note également que les pays dont les dirigeants sont au pouvoir depuis plusieurs années sont plus enclins à ordonner des coupures d’Internet. En janvier 2019, 79% des 14 dirigeants africains qui avaient été au pouvoir depuis 13 ans ou plus avaient ordonné des coupures, principalement pendant les périodes électorales et les protestations publiques contre des politiques gouvernementales.
Il s’agit notamment de Teodoro Obiang Nguema en Guinée équatoriale (39 ans); de Paul Biya au Cameroun (36); de Denis Sassou Nguesso au Congo Brazaville (34); de Yoweri Museveni en Ouganda (33); d’Omar El Bashir au Soudan (30); d’Idriss Déby au Tchad (29); d’Abdelaziz Bouteflika en Algérie (19); de Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz en Mauritanie (19); de Joseph Kabila en RDC (17); de Faure Gnassingbé au Togo (15); et de Pierre Nkurunziza au Burundi (13).
Selon ce rapport, l’année 2019 pourrait connaitre un nombre record de coupures du réseau, car au moins 20 Etats africains tiendront diverses formes d’élections, qu’elles soient locales, législatives, générales ou présidentielles.
Au fil des ans, de nombreuses perturbations du réseau se sont généralement produites dans les pays africains autocratiques autour de périodes électorales, et parmi les Etats qui ont prévu la tenue d’élections durant cette année, certains avaient déjà effectué diverses formes de coupures au cours de périodes électorales précédentes (comme la Guinée équatoriale), de manifestations publiques (Cameroun, Togo) ou à l’occasion d’examens scolaires nationaux (Algérie, Ethiopie).
Autres faits saillants du rapport «Dictateurs et restrictions : cinq dimensions des coupures d’Internet en Afrique» :
Le rapport note que les gouvernements qui ordonnent des coupures et les fournisseurs de services Internet (FSI) qui les mettent en œuvre, assument de plus en plus ouvertement ces actions. Les gouvernements se justifient en disant que les technologies numériques sont de plus en plus utilisées pour diffuser de fausses informations, propager des discours de haine et, prétendument, pour attiser le désordre public et compromettre la sécurité nationale.
De leur côté, de plus en plus de FSIs et d’opérateurs de plateformes de communication rendent publiques leurs réponses aux injonctions de coupure, aux requêtes reçues pour fournir des données personnelles des utilisateurs et aux demandes d’interception émanant des gouvernements grâce aux rapports de transparence. Une telle évolution pourrait conduire à une banalisation des coupures. Comme conséquence, un nombre croissant de gouvernements n’auraient plus honte d’assumer ouvertement les ordres de coupure. Des éléments positifs sont à noter cependant, dans la mesure où cela pourrait servir de base pour l’ouverture d’un procès ou faire avancer le plaidoyer.
Le rapport réaffirme que les coupures d’Internet, même de courte durée, affectent de nombreux pans de l’économie nationale et que leurs impacts persistent bien au-delà des périodes durant lesquelles l’accès a été perturbé. «Même si seuls cinq des pays qui ont déjà coupé l’accès à Internet et qui tiendront des élections refont ce genre d’action durant l’année en cours, notamment la limitation d’accès aux applications telles que Twitter, Facebook et WhatsApp au niveau national pendant cinq jours chacun, le rapport estime que les pertes économiques s’élèveraient à plus de 65,6 millions de dollars américains».
En outre, le rapport note que certains pays qui coupent l’accès à Internet ont des taux d’utilisation d’Internet les plus bas, et des coûts de paquets de données les plus élevés d’Afrique. La logique pourrait suggérer que les pays à faible consommation d’Internet soient les moins enclins à couper l’accès à Internet, du fait que la population en ligne soit trop insignifiante pour menacer «l’ordre public» ou «la sécurité nationale», ou même constituer une entrave sérieuse contre le pouvoir en place. Paradoxalement, le rapport trouve que les gouvernements africains les moins démocratiques, indépendamment du nombre de leurs citoyens qui utilisent internet, craignent la capacité de cet outil à renforcer la participation citoyenne et le franc-parler des citoyens ordinaires face au pouvoir.
Ce rapport peut être téléchargé sur CIPESA.