How Internet shutdowns undermine journalism in sub-Saharan Africa
On International Day for Universal Access to Information (28 September), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) sounds the alarm about a disturbing trend in sub-Saharan Africa – the blocking of access to news websites and often the entire Internet. So far this year, 12 deliberate Internet shutdowns have deprived millions of people of their right to news and information.
It is above all during elections and at times of unrest that African journalists have had to bear the brunt of these Internet shutdowns. The human rights NGO Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition have documented at least 12 major shutdowns in six sub-Saharan African countries – Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Gabon, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe – since the start of the year. This alarming trend obviously has consequences for the work of journalists.
“Whether in Zimbabwe, Senegal, Ethiopia or Gabon, Internet shutdowns that disrupt the flow of information and hamper the job of journalists to report the news, and the blocking of news websites have grown in scale in recent years in sub-Saharan Africa. Some governments use them as a weapon to restrict press freedom and access to information at key moments in the nation’s life. We ask them to end these oppressive practices and we remind them not only of our vigilance but also of the existence of our Operation Collateral Freedom, which circumvents the arbitrary denial of access to news sites.
Elections are a favourite time for some governments to cut off access to the Internet. The latest example is Gabon. Shortly before voting ended on 26 August, The Gabonese government announced a series of measures including an Internet shutdown.
By cutting off the Internet on election day, the authorities were “silencing the media,” said Gabon-based freelancer Sophie Éyégué. “On the evening of the general elections on 26 August, which had taken place in an adverse environment, the Gabonese government cut off what connected us to news developments. Firstly, access to the French international news media – Radio France Internationale (RFI), TV5Monde and France 24 – and then, most importantly for us journalists, the Internet. Suddenly, it was impossible to know what was happening in the country or even in the next neighbourhood, although it was my job to report on the situation to the media I was working for.”
In practice, shutdowns complicate the work of journalists, as was the case in Zimbabwe on the day of its general elections on 23 August. According to media outlets and the Internet governance watchdog Netblocks, the quality of Internet access began deteriorating the day before the elections, depriving many people of their right to access information.
Journalists in countries hit by Internet shutdowns told RSF that they resort to “all sorts of solutions” to transmit their stories. “I had to dictate my articles,” Éyégué said, referring to her experience in Gabon. “This wasted a lot of time, not to mention the fact that I omitted lots of details. I was unable to offer pieces to the radio stations with which I usually work because I did not have the ability to send them audio recordings. I was overcome by a feeling of helplessness.”
From Guinea to Senegal and from Chad to Ethiopia, Internet shutdowns during political unrest or conflicts have had serious consequences for journalistic work. Ayoba Faye, the editor of the Senegalese news site Pressafrik, described the impact when the authorities cut off mobile Internet access in June. “It was impossible for my reporters to provide live coverage of the protests in the field,” he told RSF. “And since most journalists do not have Wi-Fi at home, remote working was no longer possible. We had to stay in the office until late at night to process material, before going home and waiting until the next day to continue.”
In Ethiopia, where journalists are being persecuted when they cover the tension in the northern Amhara region, the Internet was down much of the time in August, according to Cloudflare Radar, which monitors global Internet traffic.
According to Felicia Anthonio, the #KeepItOn campaign manager at Access Now, governments across Africa are increasingly weaponising Internet shutdowns – particularly in times of key national moments or crises such as protests, elections, and even conflict. And the lack of access to information can endanger lives and drastically worsen already uncertain situations.
“Even more troubling is the fact that shutting down the Internet prevents journalists, human rights defenders, and other key actors from undertaking their role as watchdogs, endangering press freedom and human rights,” Anthonio said. “Access to information is an essential right that must be protected at all times.”
Operation Collateral Freedom, to circumvent censorship
As well as general Internet shutdowns, authorities often block access to individual news websites, even claiming that this is “in the nation’s best interest.” One of the most recent targets was Jeune Afrique, a Paris-based news weekly specialising in covering Africa. Burkina Faso’s military government blocked access to its website “until further notice” on 25 September after it published “mendacious” articles about tension within the military.
The Burkinabè government previously suspended all forms of access to the French public news broadcasters RFI (in December 2022) and France 24 (in March 2023) until further notice, and imposed a three-month suspension on the French commercial TV news channel LCI in July. All of these media had covered stories linked to the presence of terrorist groups in Burkina Faso.
The military government in neighbouring Mali suspended RFI and France 24 in March 2022 after RFI broadcast a report in two parts about summary executions and looting by Malian soldiers and the Russian security personnel accompanying them on their operations against terrorists.
In Guinea, some radio stations, including privately-owned Fim FM and Djoma FM, were jammed in May during a major wave of political protests. And it became impossible to access news websites such as Africa Guinée and Guinée Matin without a VPN. Guinée Matin was blocked against in August, as was the independent news and investigative website Inquisiteur.net in September. The authorities denied any role in any of these cases of blocking.
To address online censorship of news media, RSF launched Operation Collateral Freedom in 2015. When access to news sites is blocked, this operation restores accessibility by creating mirror sites on servers located outside the countries where they are censored. RSF used this method to unblock access to two news sites in Guinea in less than two weeks in August. The operation previously unblocked RFI and France 24 in Mali. And, after RSF foiled censorship of Burundi’s leading independent news site Iwacu for five years by creating mirror sites, the Burundian government finally stopped blocking access in late 2022.
The African Union has adopted legal instruments that recognise the right to news and information. To date, 27 African countries have adopted comprehensive access to information laws and 17 others have bills pending.