Many African governments are resorting to a new form of information censorship which is shutting down the internet. The use of social media by citizens during protests has made these governments resort to shutting down the internet to control the protests or any other form of dissent facilitated on various internet platforms. There’s certainly an unsettling trend, where authorities are clamping down on dissent on social media using various methods.
The Egyptian government shut down the internet during the Arab Spring in 2011 leaving 80 million Egyptians disconnected from the world. The Ethiopian government has also employed similar strategies, cutting off the internet during the Oromo protests in September last year. Former President Yahya Jammeh blocked both internet services and restricted some telecommunication services during elections in The Gambia last year.
A number of government have demonstrated an uncanny apprehension over the potential of social media to facilitate protests. Early this year, Cameroon blocked the internet, but it was only in the English speaking regions. On the 17th of January, the government ordered the shutdown of internet services in the North West and south west regions of the country. The action was taken without any notification from the government or internet providers.
— Ambaz info (@ABAKWAinfo) February 13, 2017
The government order was adhered to by mobile operators such as MTN Cameroon, Orange, Camtel and Nextel which feared the cancellation of their licenses. According to Quartz, in a recorded phone conversation, which is alleged to be a senior MTN executive, the company received written instruction from the government to suspend internet connectivity as part of their license conditions particularly when there’s a national security concern.
One of the worst hit places is the capital of the southwest region, Buea. It is where Silicon Mountain, popularly referred to as Africa’s next tech hub, is located. Silicon Mountain is the place where many tech start-up companies are based.
“#freeSouthernCameroons @gwalax holding a smartphone in this regions equals death penalty #freefontem #agboballa #bringbackourinternet” @Petitmandela
The main towns of Bamenda, Buea, Kumba, Limbe and Kumbo have been greatly affected. Most online bank transactions have been impossible to make, forcing the residents of the various towns to commute for business transactions to the nearest French speaking area.
Cameroonians started the hashtag #Bringbackourinternet in a bid highlight their displeasure and to try and force the government to restore internet services which is seen as a violation of human rights. It’s been 30 days since the government shut down the internet.
The role of the internet and social media remains particularly relevant in Cameroon considering the government’s heavy restrictions on citizens’ involvement in political activities.
The current restrictions on the use of the internet is not the first time that Cameroon has heavily descended on the use of the internet. The country experienced social media jitters following the Arab Spring protests. At the height of the protests in March 2011, the Cameroonian government ordered the mobile operator MTN to suspend its Twitter SMS service and the service was blocked for ten days, for reasons of ‘national security’.
Twitter authorities in the US verified that this service had been suspended by the Cameroonian government. The MTN’s head of information, Georges Mpoudi, posted this tweet on the day of the suspension: ‘We can’t comment further than “security reasons” on #government instructions for #SMSTweets suspension”.
Various human rights groups have continued to criticize the current action seen as violating international law, and an infringement of citizens’ rights to access information on the internet to facilitate communication, political deliberation and free expression.