The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ordered internet capacity slowed down to make it hard to transmit images on social media. In a signed letter, first reported by Reuters and then circulated by civil society on Twitter, Oscar Manikunda Musata, the post and telecommunications chief regulator, instructs the General Director of Orange DRC to take preventative measures to reduce the capacity to transmit “abusive messages.” The letter specifically cites social media sites including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter.
The order for internet companies to take ‘technical measures’ to limit social media use is an appalling attack on everyone’s right to share and receive information.
Internet shutdowns of all kinds interfere with the human right to free expression, which includes access to information. They do not restore order, keep the peace, or ensure safety, and they damage the economy and development. In Africa and around the world, people are pushing back.
Most worryingly, it comes amid a worsening political crisis where the risk of human rights violations and abuses – and therefore the importance of social media as a documentation tool – is high.
This is the third time in the past two years that the Kabila government has shut down internet services in response to protests. In January 2015, his government ordered a full shutdown of internet and SMS traffic when people demonstrated against a bill to extend President Kabila’s term beyond the constitutional limit of two five-year terms.
This most recent event continues the worrying trend among African governments of shutting down the internet to silence dissent. In 2016, six other governments — Chad, Ethiopia, Egypt, Gabon, Gambia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe — ordered disruptions in response to key political events including protests and elections. This year already five governments — Cameroon, Ethiopia, Egypt, Morocco, and now the DRC — have taken similar measures to muzzle activism in their countries.
Internet shutdowns are in direct violation of the DRC’s commitment to international human rights treaties. The DRC has signed onto the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human Rights, which both explicitly affirm the right to free expression.The United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned internet shutdowns and other intentional disruptions to access or dissemination of information online, as violations of human rights. In 2016, the African Commission adopted a resolution in which it expressed its concern over “the emerging practice of State Parties of interrupting or limiting access to telecommunication services such as the Internet, social media and messaging services, increasingly during elections.”
Access Now is calling on Africell RDC, Airtel Congo, Orange RDC, and Vodacom Congo to publicly disclose the geographic scope and services blocked, the duration of the block, or what would be required to lift it, information about how affected users can access remedy or compensation, and to issue clear statements opposing the blocking and detailing the steps telcos are taking to end it.
To help telcos prepare for such moments, Access has produced the Telco Action Plan, which guides operators through the contentious situations that arise when governments order them to help suppress dissent. The Telco Action Plan counsels companies to prevent and mitigate rights violations by demanding government requests be written and signed by officials; engaging in “unilateral or multi-stakeholder advocacy, negotiation, litigation, or ultimately direct resistance;” and narrowly limiting the scope of any compliance.
This is an edited version of the post published by AccessNow.