Why do some countries shutdown Internet during elections?
Published On August 10, 2021 » 856 Views» By Times Reporter » Features
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Internet is a game changer. It has changed the way life evolves.
When we say evolve, we mean all human activities have been impacted in one way on another.
Some people may claim that the impact is negative, but that cannot be compared to the benefits.
Internet is a powerful enabler for human development.
Nations have gathered on many fora discussing the Internet.
The discussions around the Internet, amongst the commons ones, are;
• universal access to Internet,
• Internet society,
• Internet security,
• Internet as an economic enabler,
• Internet regulations and policies.
Policy-makers are facing the constant challenges to regulate and control activities conducted on the Internet due to the dynamics of technology which in many cases, happen faster than the laws.
Internet is used as an enabler to social economic development.
It connects people who share common goals; it also connects businesses to people and nations.
Zambia is set for general elections this Thursday and we will assume that the Internet will be available to the citizens and to the businesses.
In the recent past, the nation has done so well by providing Internet connectivity to the urban and rural communities.
The National Information and Communications Technology Policy has been very effective to deliver its goals.
When we discuss the nation ICT Policy, we can also discuss the Seventh National Development Plan (7NDP), which outlines development goals to all sectors.
This column always stands on its objectives to increase ICT knowledge and awareness to create responsible and digital citizens.
The article will discuss why some countries shutdown the Internet during elections.
The article is will endeavour to bring out some reports of countries where the Internet was shutdown regardless of it being essential.
Internet shutdown
During a shutdown, there is little to no network connectivity.
All systems of communication that rely on the Internet – social media platforms, Internet-based voice and messaging applications, ordinary websites – are rendered inaccessible.
BBC Christopher Giles and Peter Mwai reporters write that, ‘This is becoming more common in some African countries, where governments have sometimes shut down or restricted the Internet and access to social media platforms. Uganda is the latest country to do so in the run-up to its presidential election on 14 January.’
Cases of Internet shutdowns in Africa have been rising.
Tanzania restricted access to the Internet and social media applications during elections in October 2020.
In June that year, Ethiopia imposed an Internet shutdown which lasted for close to a month after unrest which followed the killing of a prominent Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa.
Zimbabwe, Togo, Burundi, Chad, Mali and Guinea also restricted access to the Internet or social media applications at some point in 2020.
In 2019, there were 25 documented instances of partial or total Internet shutdowns, compared with 20 in 2018 and 12 in 2017, according to Access Now, an independent monitoring group (Business Insider).
BBC reality check farther reported that in 2019, seven of the 14 countries that blocked access had not done so in the two previous years (these were Benin, Gabon, Eritrea, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania and Zimbabwe).
This is part of a global trend, where more and more countries are restricting Internet access.
The group says in Africa, most lockdowns tend to affect entire countries as opposed to specific regions or groups of people.
In 2019, 21 out of the 25 shutdowns recorded by the group affected entire countries or most parts of the countries.
Only Sudan and Ethiopia had targeted shutdowns.
Now that we have established the countries which blocked the Internet during election time, let us dive on the other side to answer the question, why Internet is shutdown during elections.
Governments justify Internet freedom violations in a number of ways, but there are a few common triggers.
Freedom House pointed out the two reasons.

  1. Protests
    In 2019, protests prompted restrictions in a number of countries, including Sudan, Liberia, and Zimbabwe.
    Social media are powerful organising tools so some governments see restrictions on them as a way to tamp down popular mobilisation.
    Limiting communication can also prevent the spread of news about the state’s human rights violations.
    This reasoning was cited as a concern in Zimbabwe and Sudan.
  2. Unfavourable news/fake news
    The case of Chad: When the Chadian government blocked social media beginning on March 28, 2018, it was not in response to a particular external catalyst.
    Instead, the authorities were reacting to a constitutional reform proposal that would allow the long-time president to serve additional terms in office.
    The blocking was apparently an attempt to prevent protests or other backlash against the plan, which was likely to be unpopular.
    Where election campaigns have been marred by violence and intimidations, this may result in disconnecting the Internet for citizens during the polls.
    This tact of Internet disruption has become a notable trend in African nations.
    Using the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index, it is noteworthy that of the 22 African states that have disrupted Internet connectivity in the last five years, 77 per cent are listed as dictatorships, while 23 per cent are considered partial democracies.
    This is according to Mthokozisi Dube of The African Exponent.
    The Internet and popular social media platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and more are used as methods to disseminate information and plan and coordinate protests. Therefore, most African leaders shut down the Internet.
    The governments that implement Internet shutdowns have become more open about them. They openly say the shutdown is meant to ensure national security in a bid to stop spreading disinformation and hate speech.
    Internet shutdowns, therefore, find themselves closely placed with crucial events like elections.
    During protests, Internet shutdowns ensure the inability to coordinate and properly plan, because of poor communication means.
    The implementation of the Internet shutdown during the elections is nothing new to the African states like Chad where election campaigns were criticized for violence, intimidation, and false news.
    This practice has become common and seemingly acceptable as deplorable as it is, in most despotic nations on the continent.
    Some commentators said the Internet shutdowns do not only rob citizens of their democratic rights and constitutional rights to protest, but are slowly entrenching a new way of authoritarian rule.
    Measures should be put in place to protect citizens rights to access the Internet and avoid arbitrary disconnections by the government.
    Not only do these Internet disruptions cause loss of democratic rights, in 2019, Internet shutdowns were estimated to have cost the African continent over $2 billion.
    UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression David Kaye echoed the 2015 UN declaration, calling the country’s shutdown “a clear violation of international law.”
    He also pointed out that the shutdown undermined electoral integrity and damaged people’s access to basic services.
    Perhaps most importantly, such violations deprive individuals of the ability to communicate with friends and family, often at a time when public safety may be compromised.- Freedom House
    The case studies from other countries may represent Africa, but Zambia has conducted free and fair elections which international observers have commended the nation for.
    Therefore, Zambia will maintain its legacy of conducting peaceful elections and citizens will enjoy their digital right to access full Internet.
    The author is a speaker, mentor, educator, trainer, professional and community leader, IT and cybersecurity leader. For comments email: ICTMatters@kingston.co.zm; www.kingston.co.zm; WhatsApp +260 955 689 574.
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