Internet disruptions have become prevalent worldwide with Asia and Africa leading in the frequency of incidents. In 2022 alone, more than 20 countries in the world recorded over 100 internet disruptions, affecting more than 700 million citizens. The disruptions are reported to have cost not less than $24 billion in a world economy already reeling from a number of shocks.
The picture does not look any brighter in Africa, particularly, West Africa. Specifically, in 2022, five internet disruptions were recorded in two countries, namely, Burkina Faso (3) and Sierra Leone (2). These disruptions affected the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in the two countries.
The situation has not improved in 2023. In fact, as of August 2023 when this report was being compiled, six disruptions had already been recorded in Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea. Additional details about the incidents are captured below under the respective countries.
Three separate incidents of internet disruption occurred in Senegal. The first incident occurred on June 1, 2023, after a criminal court in Dakar sentenced Senegalese opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko to two years’ imprisonment. Protests erupted in the country after the opposition leader was found guilty of “corrupting the youth” while acquitting him of raping a woman who worked at a massage parlour.
Security forces responded to the protests with brutal force, leading to the death of at least nine protesters. Additionally, the government’s disproportionate measures to suppress the protests took the form of blockage of mobile data and social media platforms.
The Ministry of Communication, Telecommunications and Digital Economy claimed that the blockage of mobile internet was in response to the dissemination of “hateful and subversive” messages on social media platforms during the riots that turned deadly.
For six days, the people of Senegal were denied access to mobile internet and social media platforms. Access was restored on June 7, 2023.
The restoration of lasted for less than a month. On July 31, 2023, Senegalese woke up to a press release from the government announcing another restriction of mobile internet services due to alleged “dissemination of hateful and subversive messages relayed on social networks in the context of a threat to public order.” No details were given about the duration of the disruption. This disruption also lasted 6 days. Access was restored on August 6, 2023.
In another attempt to widen the clampdown on the continuing agitations over Sonko’s detention, the government of Senegal blocked indefinitely the social media app TikTok on August 2, 2023. Moussa Bocar Thiam, the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, said in an official statement that TikTok had been observed as the network of choice of malicious individuals to spread hateful and subversive messages that threaten the nation’s stability.
With the most bizarre reason given yet for an internet shutdown, authorities in Mauritania on March 6, 2023, restricted access to mobile internet for six days reportedly to conduct a security search following a prison break.
Only individuals, companies and institutions could access the internet through Wi-Fi connections, which is not accessible to many. Even when the mobile internet was not disrupted, internet access in the country was quite limited, especially outside the major cities. Thus, with the restricted access, a lot more Mauritanians were denied access to the internet.
A few weeks later, another incident of internet shutdown occurred in the country. The authorities shut down the internet on May 31, 2023 in response to protests that had erupted in several cities of the country over the sudden death of one Oumar Diop who died in police custody.
Guinea experienced an internet disruption on May 17, 2023, ahead of a highly anticipated two-day anti-government protest. While the government claimed that the disruption could be as a result of technical issues with the submarine cable connecting the country to the internet, suspicions arose due to past instances of authorities employing internet shutdowns without explanation. Media unions, internet rights activists, and bloggers’ associations accused the government of intentionally imposing the internet blackout to stifle the anti-government demonstrations which were being planned by a coalition of civil society organisations and opposition political parties known as the Forces Vives.
It will be recalled that the Guinean authorities disrupted the internet under the pretext that submarine cables connecting the country were to undergo maintenance. It was however clear that the internet disruption was too close to the country’s joint legislative elections and referendum to be a coincidence. The suspicion was confirmed when Netblocks revealed that the March 20, 2020, internet disruption were executed individually by each network operator and could, therefore, not have been due to issues relating to the submarine cable.
The report by Netblocks also revealed that the blockages exclusively target particular social media platforms while leaving other websites unaffected. Additionally, the pattern of disruption aligned with methods commonly employed to curtail online content at the application layer, indicating that this is not linked to routine maintenance or physical infrastructure issues.
Why do governments disrupt the internet?
Internet disruptions have become a frequent tool for some governments in West Africa to directly and indirectly impose censorship, often under the pretext of maintaining law and order.
These network interruptions and shutdowns have often taken place during times of conflict or escalated political tensions, such as elections (before, during and after) or public protests (before and during such agitations) Internet disruptions and shutdowns are also sometimes resorted to under the pretext of curbing the spread of hate speech and mis/disinformation. A typical example is what happened in Senegal in June 2023 (as highlighted under Senegal above).
These shutdowns are used by governments to manipulate media narratives, quash local perspectives, and control the flow of information.
Strikingly, the countries in which these internet disruptions occur share a few similarities. In the case of the three countries cited for network disruptions and shutdowns (Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea) in this report, for instance, all the three countries have recorded a decline in democratic standards. Although Senegal was long touted as a beacon of democracy in West Africa, the country is now classified among the most repressive of dissenting voices. The records of Guinea and Mauritania are not any better in terms of democracy and the respect for freedom of expression.
The foundational pillars essential for nurturing democracy are falling apart in a number of countries where such disruptions and shutdowns occur. The sustainability of democracy is intrinsically linked to the observance of democratic principles such as the rule of law, the protection of fundamental human rights, transparent elections, and a culture of accountability and respect for divergent opinions. Where such principles are not upheld and institutions are weak, such that governments are able to manipulate state apparatuses and even private business entities to serve their agenda, including restricting access to a critical resource like the internet.
How do internet disruptions affect these countries?
Internet disruptions have significant consequences. They curtail the rights to freedom of expression and press freedom, and thus, stifle dissent, limit expression and restrict civic space.
Internet access deprivation for journalists and civil society activists drastically hampers their ability to report on human rights violations occurring during protests. This leads to an uphill battle for on-the-ground narratives to gain attention, resulting in a reduction in the coverage of local issues.
In an era where misinformation can spread effortlessly, these disruptions hinder the dissemination of authentic, firsthand information regarding the government’s actions during protests and other important national events, making it challenging to verify the accuracy of official reports.
Furthermore, these disruptions hinder the efficient and swift mobilisation of large groups, thus infringing upon the fundamental right to peaceful assembly.
Ultimately, these shutdowns undermine or eliminate access to crucial digital tools needed for campaigning, fostering public discourse, conducting voting, and overseeing electoral procedures.
One of the significant sectors that network disruptions and shutdowns directly impact heavily is the economy. Such unfortunate incidents often lead to the disruption of financial transactions, commerce, industry, and the availability of platforms for the delivery of services which all have adverse economic implications.
Based on NetBlocks’ Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST), which gauges the economic impact of a hypothetical internet disruption, mobile data outage or app restriction, Senegal could face a daily economic loss of almost $8 million during an internet shutdown. Similarly, Guinea and Mauritania could incur daily losses of over $4 million and $2 million respectively for the social media blackout perpetuated in their countries.
The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) strongly condemns the recurring instances of internet disruptions in Senegal, Guinea, and Mauritania. We urge the governments of these nations to uphold the fundamental rights of their citizens, including the right to assembly, access to internet and information, press freedom and freedom of expression. In particular, the MFWA advocates that the respective governments take heed of the following recommendations, which could contribute to fostering an environment that upholds democratic values, protects citizens’ rights, and facilitates an open and informed discourse:
- Prioritise and safeguard citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and access to vital information, both online and offline in line with international human rights standards.
- Put an end to internet disruptions and shutdown, and content limitations during moments of conflict, protests, or political turmoil, where information flow is crucial.
- Amend cybercrime laws to prevent their misuse for stifling legitimate dissent, or muzzling freedom of expression and press freedom.
- Educate citizens about responsible online conduct, discerning credible sources, and recognising and countering mis/disinformation.
- In collaboration with internet service providers, civil society, and technology firms, develop strategies that safeguard the internet as a means of democratic participation.
- Engage in global conversations and collaborative initiatives to tackle problems that involve internet disruptions, hate speech, and false information.
- Support an inclusive and varied media landscape that enables diverse viewpoints, stimulates public discourse, and holds governments accountable.