Cameroonian journalist Richard Onanena’s recent trip to neighbouring Chad to cover the first round of elections on 10 April was a harrowing experience. Due to the restrictions on communications imposed by the government, he was unable to send messages or reach his colleagues at the BBC Africa service’s headquarters in Dakar.
‘On the morning of the election, I was supposed to send my report live from N’Djamena, but I couldn’t because of the blackout’. What’s more, Onanena says he was unable to reach his contacts in Chad to check what was happening at the various voting stations. ‘We moved blindly from one polling station to another without knowing what to expect,’ he told ISS Today.
The shutting down of social media, messaging and mobile phone communications around the elections in Chad came in the wake of similar incidents in the Republic of Congo and Uganda, where governments also severely restricted access to communication networks during the recent elections. Election monitors and civil society organisations are increasingly concerned about this phenomenon, which signals a return to Cold War-era censorship and an attempt by governments to control the flow of information.
This trend is in contrast to the wave of democratic elections in Africa that benefited from the use of communications technology. From the early 2000s journalists, opposition parties and civil society organisations in various countries have used technology very effectively. This has included monitoring elections by transmitting voting results via mobile phones and broadcasting these on radio, as these are released by electoral commissions.
In Senegal in 2000, journalists could, for the first time, contribute to the fairness and transparency of the presidential polls through this parallel monitoring process. The mobile phone boom coincided with the freeing of the airwaves, allowing independent radio stations like Walfadjri to inform all Senegalese citizens of the results posted up on the polling stations. This is an excellent way to help curb vote rigging.
The same method was used effectively in Ghana, also in 2000, and was repeated elsewhere across the continent. In 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia brought long-serving dictators to a fall; also thanks to the power of social media and mass communication. Citizens of these countries, one has to add, had long been accustomed to authoritarian governments that restrict free speech to a minimum, and had devised strategies to get around such restrictions. Attempts by these regimes to stem popular revolutions by restricting social media access therefore failed.
African governments are becoming increasingly aware of the power of social media in organising opposition campaigns and civil society protests. Some governments are now using various strategies to clamp down on social media, says Grant Masterson, a senior programme officer with the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA). Of the most common reasons given by governments such as those in Chad or Uganda is that of ‘national security’.
Parallel vote-counting and the early release of election results have led various governments to outlaw the publication of results by organisations other than the official election commission. In many cases, it has become a crime to announce the results before they are officially made public. Governments argue that the early release of results could give rise to rumours and, eventually, election-related violence.
Robert Gerenge, head of special programmes at EISA, agrees that social media platforms are indeed a ‘very fluid political marketplace, where ideas exchange very fast, beyond borders and can have negative consequences’. He points to the ethnic hate speech that circulated on Kenyan social media immediately after President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected in 2013.
Gerenge, however, says organisations like EISA and the African Union (AU) should castigate governments who impose such restrictions, because they are contrary to the norms and standards of democratic elections. ‘Clearly, there is an apparent urgency for a conversation within policy circles on charting the way forward to safeguard the gains of democracy on the continent’.
International role-players like the United States (US) have also commented on the communications blackout during the presidential poll in the Republic of Congo on 20 March. US State Department spokesperson Robert Kirby said, ‘we urge Congolese authorities to restore communications and complete the electoral process with accuracy, credibility, fairness and transparency.’
In her comment on the elections in the Republic of Congo, AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma also urged the government ‘to immediately re-establish telecommunication lines to the general public, which the Minister of Interior and Decentralisation ordered to be blocked on 20 and 21 March 2016. Mobile telephone connections have remained blocked during and after the elections, affecting general communications as well as creating anxiety around the results of the elections.’
Still, it will probably not be outside pressure alone that makes governments change their minds, but the realisation that such actions cannot be successful in an era of global connectedness.
Masterson says that of the three countries that experienced election blackouts this year, Ugandans were the most skilled in circumventing the restrictions. Many Ugandans set up proxy Internet routers in neighbouring countries and found ways to communicate despite the clampdown of the free flow of information. In countries like Nigeria and South Africa, that have even more sophisticated networks, it would be impossible to stop all communications, Masterson says.
In countries like Ethiopia – where there is only one telecommunications company and one Internet provider, both of which are closely controlled by government – it is much easier to shut down access to social media and chat sites. Mobile phone companies, even foreign ones like South African-owned MTN or Vodacom, are obliged to follow the government’s orders – especially if such measures are ordered to ‘fight terrorism’ or ‘in the interest of national security.’
Radio France International journalist Sonia Rolley, who covers the Great Lakes area, says it has almost become commonplace for cellphone communications and access to social media to be cut off during moments of tension. Rolley says that during the protest actions and civil unrest in Burundi recently, communications were similarly cut off. When covering elections, one has to come prepared. ‘We’ve almost become used to it,’ she says.
Foreign correspondents now invariably have private networks installed on their laptops to communicate with their headquarters and get their stories out. Rolley says she also takes a satellite phone with her when covering tense situations and she tries to get as many landline numbers of spokespeople and police. Ironically, the mobile phone – which has become a vehicle for individual liberties – is of no use in such circumstances.
At this stage, only a handful of African countries have legislation protecting the right to access to information, so citizens do not generally have recourse to the law to prohibit governments from controlling the communications networks. However, Masterson says there is an increasing global movement to take away the control of the Internet from governments. ‘Governments still want to be the gatekeeper, but in the 21st century, do they have that right?’ he asks.
These recent attempts by African governments to hold elections under a blanket of suspicion seem like a throwback to another era. Yet with all the technology available, keeping citizens in the dark will only become more and more difficult.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant