The past two years have seen more than 50 governments around the world shut down internet or limit access to sections of it like social media. In Africa this has mainly been around elections with Gambia and Uganda being the most recent examples.
Kenya goes to the polls in seven months and if information by the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK) boss is anything to go by, dark days lie ahead of Kenya’s digital community.
In a press briefing last week, the Authority’s CEO said the government had acquired surveillance systems to monitor online and off-line communications over the election period at a cost of USD 20 million. Even though the authority claims that this move is aimed at preventing 2007/8 like scenarios, without proper legal backing it amounts to intrusion on privacy and might likely be used to suppress free speech. Warning that if they have to they will shut down the internet.
“We are using all possible means to avoid a situation where there is too much tension in the country forcing us to take a drastic step,” said CAK CEO Francis Wangusi.
For a country like Kenya where the political tensions are always high and without an existing legal framework for monitoring online conversations, the statements by the CAK could be used at anytime to muzzle social media which is currently the only form of media that the government cannot directly threaten with withdrawal of government advertising.
There is already a growing concern that the August elections are going to be stolen in favor of the incumbent. Social media would therefore play an important role in the monitoring of the elections process through citizen journalism. Whether it’s a complete shutdown like was the case in Gambia or a shutdown of social media like was the case with Uganda, Kenyans will likely be denied an opportunity to engage in conversations around the elections and elections process.
The government has also changed the laws to allow for manual transmission of elections results as opposed to an electronic transmission which points to the possibility of complete shutdown.
The shutdowns in Africa now seem to be a trend that has not escaped the attention of internet rights activists.
The year 2016 has shaped up to be the year of Internet shutdowns in Africa, with numerous documented cases of shutdowns recorded across the continent. This is in addition to an increasing number of legislations and policies that violate digital rights; and arrests of numerous bloggers, journalists and citizens who exercised their right to freedom of opinion and expression online, said Tomiwa Ilori of Paradigm Initiatives Nigeria, during the launch of a report on Digital Rights in Africa.
The report aptly titled “Choking the pipe” documents how African governments are hurting internet freedoms through shutdowns in a continent that actually needs more access.
Part of these actions are actually implemented by multinational corporations who in their own countries respect freedoms of information but are eager to bend the laws in Africa for corporate gains.
A common trend for Internet shutdowns across the continent has been government orders to private telecommunications and Internet companies to cut off citizens from the Internet, and this shows that private businesses –including global businesses working in countries where they respect citizen rights – still act, in many cases, at the behest of governments across Africa, says part of the report.
An observation shared with Zimbabwean journalist and Africa Blogging contributor Takura Zhangazha. During a session of the 2016 Re:publica conference to discuss African elections and social media shutdowns in Berlin, Mr. Zhangazha observed that the trend was due to the fact that access to internet in most African countries was seen a privilege rather than a right.
“Access to the internet is not a right that every citizen is expected to enjoy like water and in the process the government treats access to internet more of as a privilege…When telecommunications companies present the internet as commodity and not a right and that basically means that access to internet becomes a privilege of the few and not the greater majority,” he observes.
While Kenya generally has internet penetration rates above 70% mostly due to mobile data, the narrative slightly changes from access to freedoms to use it in public debate. The current government has since taking over power systematically shown a lot of disregard for voices on the internet. Bloggers and social media users have been frequently arrested and arraigned in courts for criticizing the government or politicians. All of those cases have been thrown out of the courts.
So when the government issues out statements like the ones released last week by the CAK, the threat of a total or partial shutdown are as real as they could get. A virtual private network application might help override a social media shutdown but the possibility of a complete shutdown will greatly hamper Kenyan’s participation in the electoral process.