The Business and Human Rights Unit, the Democracy and Civic Engagement Unit and the Expression, Information and Digital Rights Unit at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, invite you to a webinar on elections, internet shutdowns and access to information to discuss how internet shutdowns are fast becoming a new threat to democracy in Africa.
Webinar on elections, internet shutdowns and access to information: Are internet shutdowns the new threat to democracy?
Thursday 18 March 2021
09:00 GMT / 10:00 WAT / 11:00 SAST / 12: 00 EAT
All participants are required to register on Zoom.
Zoom Meeting ID: 974 5829 8378 (registration required)
Click here to register on Zoom
Moderator: Thomas White
Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
- Dr Peter Mutesasira
Dean, Faculty of Law, Uganda Christian University
- Johnson Mayamba Banziyanga
- Catherine Anite
Freedom of Xpression Hub, Uganda
- Ichumile Gqada
Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa
On the eve of Uganda’s 14 January 2021 general elections, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) sent out a circular to all telecom operators and internet service providers ordering them to suspend all internet gateways and associated access points until further notice. This led to a five-day internet blackout. The internet was only partly restored on 18 January 2021, two days after the Electoral Commission had announced the incumbent President Museveni as the winner of the elections. However, even then, social media platforms remained blocked and only accessible through Virtual Private Networks (VPN)--which the government threatened to arrest anyone found using.
In a meeting with foreign diplomats, Uganda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sam Kuteesa attributed the internet shutdown to government response to the Facebook and Twitter shutdown of some government and National Resistance Movement (the ruling party) accounts, leaving those of other political actors active. In a Facebook statement, accused the account holders of using fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people's content, impersonate users and re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular. The government considered this as an interference in the elections and asked Facebook and Twitter to restore the closed accounts. The Minister noted that social media platforms did not comply with their request leading to the government shutdown of the entire network to ensure equity. He also added that the shutdown was a security measure to stop vitriolic language and incitement to violence online. The January 2021 general elections was the second time the Museveni government employed the tool. The first internet shutdown was witnessed during the 2016 general elections.
Personality politics in Africa as with many authoritarian governments remains a huge threat to democracy. The lines between the government and other institutions, state or otherwise, tend to be blurred in one-party state regimes, which have been the main form of authoritarian rule on the African continent. The state and other institutions are mechanised against the citizens and the opposition in this type of authoritarian rule; this was typified in the most recent Ugandan elections where the incumbent even during an election cycle, mechanised the state and other institutions, including the army, corporate entities and the law through COVID-19 regulations to deeply entrench their power and remain in control. Most institutions have been personalized and operate at the whims of the president. Policies and regulatory frameworks are discarded and institutions operate to appease and enforce the interests of the president. It’s for these purposes that internet shutdowns are enforced so as to control the flow of information and limit organising of opposition who mainly rely on informal media platforms to access information, organise and communicate to the electorate.
Internet shutdowns are now a common tool used by dictatorial regimes and governments to limit and restrict access to information (seeking, receiving and imparting), critical debate and online organizing especially by those with dissenting views. Generally, restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information fuel fear, anxiety, panic and alarm among the citizens and remain a huge threat to political participation and democracy. This often leaves the ruling party in total control of the process and actors involved. As we question the legitimacy of internet blockades across the globe, it is also critical that we assess the role played by different actors including business operators and the avenues that are available to ensure transparency and enhance accountability of the various players according to regional and international law and standards.
Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights guarantees the right of access to information. This right is further elaborated in other instruments such as the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of expression and Access to Information in Africa. Specifically on elections, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa (the Guidelines) provides practical direction on proactive information disclosure during elections. Regarding internet shutdowns, the Guidelines provide that only in exceptional circumstances should a shutdown be permissible. It must be authorised by law, serve a legitimate aim and be necessary and proportional in a democratic society. The Guidelines further provide that a decision to shutdown internet should be subject to judicial review.
The overall objective of the webinar is to interrogate personality politics in Africa and how internet shutdowns restrict political participation and threaten democracy.
Specifically, the webinar discussion will attempt to answer these key questions:
- To what extent does one party-ism contribute to incumbents holding onto power?
- What role can be played by non-state actors including civil society, business and the international community to protect the democratic processes in these situations and to prevent the unfettered control of authoritarian incumbents in manipulating electoral processes for their benefit?
- What is the role of access to information in elections?
- Are internet shutdowns a necessary, legitimate and proportional tool to ensure public safety and national security during elections?
- Are internet shutdowns a necessary, legitimate and proportional tool to manage hate speech and curb the spread of false news online?
- What responsibilities do telecom companies and other internet service providers have towards their users in the face of government orders on internet shutdowns?
- What recourse do internet users have against corporate entities especially telecom companies and other internet service providers for breaches of service agreements during these shutdowns?
- What is the lasting damage of internet shutdowns on democracy and political participation?
Click here to regsiter on Zoom
For more information, please contact:
Manager, Business and Human Rights Unit,
Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria