Africa has seen increased communication blackouts in recent times, especially during times of elections, protests and political unrest. Over the past decade we have seen governments blocking digital communication in their respective countries as a way of limiting the spread real-time news and updates.
African countries such as Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic (DRC) of Congo, Gabon, Gambia, Uganda and recently, Zimbabwe, have blocked social media during elections and other politically sensitive periods. Instead of this misstep achieving the intended objective of controlling the spread of news, it accomplished a far worse fate for all the countries. The world stands in solidarity with citizens and human rights organisations call for transparency and the rights of people to not be trampled upon.
Recently, we saw the communication blackout in Zimbabwe, largely targeting social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. Zimbabweans experienced a blackout following alleged threats from government that it would shut down the entire internet following protests against fuel price hikes.
Since the advent of the Arab Spring, African governments have become wary of the power of social media and messaging apps. In some cases, a lack of understanding around how this is a reflection of society, as opposed to whether people have access or not, continues to be the Achilles heel for some parts of government. This is arguably true among some commercial brands as well.
On 19 January 2019, the DRC restored internet access after a 20-day shutdown, following the disputed presidential elections. This was not the first time, in December 2016, authorities ordered a social media blackout. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube and LinkedIn were blocked, temporarily.
In January 2015, the Congolese government imposed an Internet blackout where they also blocked SMS services for mobile phones throughout the country following deadly clashes with the police.
When Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni was sworn in for his fifth term on the 12th of May 2016, social media was blocked. According to journalists in the country, it was the second time in less than three months that the government had censored social media.
According to Cipesa, on the 1st of July 2018, telecom companies in Uganda blocked access to social media platforms for all users and required them to pay a newly introduced Over-The-Top” (OTT) tax before regaining access. The tax resulted from a March 2018 presidential directive for social media to be taxed to raise resources “to cope with the consequences” of social media users’ “opinions, prejudices [and] insults”.
Would South Africa end up on the same boat? In 2015, mobile signal was jammed during President Jacob Zuma’s delivery of the State of the Nation Address (SONA). Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) experts described that proceeding as a “sad day in the country’s democracy”
Africa Analysis MD Dobek Pater highlighted that though it appeared to be a deliberate attempt to limit the dissemination of news and information, “the country is not at the point where, as has been the case in some countries such as Afghanistan, telecommunications operators are forced by authorities to terminate transmission from base stations in order to block out opposition.”
According to Internet Advocacy group Access Now, the techniques used by governments to shut down the internet differ, from total blackouts to targeted throttling or blocking of specific applications. It states that the effects of an internet shutdown go beyond simply cutting off people’s access to information.
Shutting down social media has greater repercussions than the temporary limitation of communication which governments have imposed. Both commercial brands and the public sector need to view access to social networks as a way of gauging the nation’s levels of consciousness and the temperature on certain issues. Social media data can be helpful in many ways because it can allow us to avert a crisis by letting us in on public discourse, far easier than ever before.