Author: Hilary Matfess
Site of publication: Quartz Africa
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: June 1st, 2016
Last week, Ghana, widely acknowledged as one of Africa’s role models for best democratic practice, caught democracy watchdogs off guard when the country’s police chief announced the government intends to shut down social media on voting day in November. The shutdown is to take place from 5 am to 7 pm “to ensure social media are not used to send misleading information that could destabilize the country.”
While it is a surprise Ghana is making this move, it has become more common for several other African countries who haven’t been as courteous as to give voters notice before curtailing the use of social media and the right to free speech around elections.
Deji Olukotun of Internet freedom advocacy group Access Now, notes Ghana “was clearly looking to what other countries have done.” Citizens in Ethiopia, Congo, Chad, Uganda, and elsewhere have found elections are a particularly popular time to crack down on social media.
Consider Uganda, which experienced its second social media shut down in three months in the days before president Yoweri Museveni was sworn in for his controversial fifth term. The previous time Ugandans faced a social media shutdown was on election day in February. People resorted to using virtual private networks to get round the restrictions to use Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
The previous time Ugandans faced a social media shutdown was on election day in February. People resorted to using virtual private networks to get round the restrictions to use Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
While social media may seem frivolous to those in the West, these platforms have become a critical part of political mobilization in Africa. According to analysis, Twitter accounts from Africa tweet more about politics than accounts from other continents.
Less well publicized is the role social media and the #NigeriaDecides hashtag played in helping the country to stage free and fair elections last year. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) encouraged citizens to use the hashtag to report on voting conditions across the country, to “provide a check on the legitimacy of the … elections.” The 10,000 election observers across the country not only engaged in their traditional monitoring responsibilities, but also followed the social media posts to identify and address problems at polling stations. A report by Demos found that more than 12 million tweets about the Nigerian election were posted.
Leaders of other African countries seem to fear what they see as the destabilizing potential of this technology—and have sought to limit it. This attempt to stymie communication is hardly novel—traditional media outlets have long been subject to government censorship and control.
While social media may seem frivolous to those in the West, these platforms have become a critical part of political mobilization in Africa. According to analysis, Twitter accounts from Africa tweet more about politics than accounts from other continents
Countries that have limited social media have typically justified their suppression by citing ‘security concerns.’ Uganda’s recent blackout was justified on the grounds that visiting heads of state for the swearing in provided the opportunity for terrorist attacks, despite this threat being relatively limited and generally unconnected to the availability of social media.
Similar logic was behind the temporary shutdown of telecommunications and the internet the day before the Congo-Brazzaville’s March presidential elections, for “reasons of security and national safety.” Ethiopia’s vast internet surveillance program and aggressive persecution is justified under the auspices of a counter-terrorism bill enacted in 2009.
Couching the suppression of free speech in the language of national security not only makes it easier to imprison and intimidate activists, it also makes it more difficult for the international community to apply pressure for reform. In fact, in some circles, the seeming commitment to countering terrorist groups and bolstering national security makes these increasingly autocratic countries seem like valuable strategic partners on the sub-continent.
Globally, governments and activists are grappling with the enormous opportunities that new media outlets present and are struggling to articulate what role these technologies should play in the political landscape. Access Now’s Olukotun notes that these sorts of crackdowns have tangible economic ramifications; he asserts that they’re “a blunt instrument that hurts everyone.”
Couching the suppression of free speech in the language of national security not only makes it easier to imprison and intimidate activists, it also makes it more difficult for the international community to apply pressure for reform
By tracing the decline in mobile money transactions—popular across Sub-Saharan Africa—Access Now estimates that Uganda lost $25 million on election day. Olukotun underlines that this is just the baseline economic impact, emphasizing that $25 million is just a “ballpark figure—it’s not even looking at the knock on effects of shutting down communication.”
Though this debate is ongoing, complex, and contentious, it is critical that we not allow autocratic governments to curtail the right to free speech on these platforms — citing amorphous security concerns without evidence of a tangible threat cannot be tolerated.
Les Wathinotes sont soit des résumés de publications sélectionnées par WATHI, conformes aux résumés originaux, soit des versions modifiées des résumés originaux, soit des extraits choisis par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au thème du Débat. Lorsque les publications et leurs résumés ne sont disponibles qu’en français ou en anglais, WATHI se charge de la traduction des extraits choisis dans l’autre langue. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.
The Wathinotes are either original abstracts of publications selected by WATHI, modified original summaries or publication quotes selected for their relevance for the theme of the Debate. When publications and abstracts are only available either in French or in English, the translation is done by WATHI. All the Wathinotes link to the original and integral publications that are not hosted on the WATHI website. WATHI participates to the promotion of these documents that have been written by university professors and experts.