Senegal’s internet shutdown signals a democracy under siege

The Senegalese government on June 7th partially reinstated mobile phone internet following a shutdown that had lasted weeks. The communications ministry stated that they will however continue to impose curfew-like shutdowns (1 p.m to 2 a.m) on internet access and continue to restrict certain social media platforms across the country in an effort to quell dissent over the trial of opposition figure Ousmane Sonko. 

The internet was first shut down in Senegal on June 1, 2023, following weeks of protests calling for the release of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who had been arrested on charges of rape. The arrest of Sonko, a popular figure among Senegal’s youth, sparked widespread demonstrations across several cities in the country. At least 16 people have been killed and 500 so far arrested for participating in the protests.  

The Senegalese government justified the internet shutdown as a necessary means to maintain national security by curbing the spread of misinformation, hateful, subversive messages, and videos that could further incite violence and unrest. The shutdown however has been described as a dangerous threat to free expression of the people of Senegal.

Several internet channels were reportedly shut down including social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram, as well as messaging apps, some television stations, and news websites.

The internet shutdown has already had far-reaching effects on the country’s economy, social fabric, and democratic space.  Many civil society organizations, including human rights groups, media organizations, and activists, have spoken out against the internet shutdown in Senegal calling on the government to respect citizens’ right to freedom of expression and to ensure that the internet remains accessible and open in line with democratic principles. They argue that such a shutdown if prolonged, may damage public trust in government institutions and hinder the development of a free and open society.

Consequently, critics also argue that the Senegalese government was using censorship tactics to stifle citizens’ voices and maintain control at the expense of democratic values and principles. As a member of various international treaties and conventions that guarantee freedom of speech, expression, and access to information, it is crucial for the Senegalese government to ensure that its policies and practices align with democratic principles and international norms. 

While the government may have legitimate concerns regarding the spread of misinformation, it must find other effective ways to address the underlying causes of the protests without infringing on citizens’ rights. 

Internet shutdowns are often implemented by authoritarian governments in response to perceived threats to national security or social instability, such as protests or elections. They however pose a significant threat to democracy because they limit citizens’ access to independent news sources, have online dialogue, express opinions on social media and forums, and organize peaceful protests and demonstrations. 

In Africa, the practice of shutting down the internet to quell protests or dissent is widespread and has been used since the 2011 Arab Spring. Governments in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya have employed this tactic to restrict the dissemination of information. In recent times, other nations including Ethiopia, Gabon, Uganda, Sudan, Gambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and many others have also resorted to internet shutdowns during periods of social unrest.

Secrets Known believes that internet shutdowns have a significant impact on citizens’ right to free speech, the press, access to information, and participation in democracy. These rights are crucial for democracy to thrive, and their restriction can undermine transparency, accountability and deprive citizens of their right to participate in government affiliation. 

Internet shutdowns pose a serious risk to democracy especially in African countries. They limit the public’s access to information, free speech, and communication, which are essential ingredients for the promotion of democratic ideals. 

Secrets Known proposes that governing authorities should seek alternatives to internet shutdowns by engaging various stakeholders and formulating policies that promote free and open access to communication systems while putting into account national security issues.

The situation in Senegal still remains tense, with continued protests and clashes between protesters and security forces. The international community, including the United Nations and African Union, has called on all parties to exercise restraint and to work towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The African Union (AU) statement specifically emphasized the importance of respecting democratic principles such as freedom of expression and assembly. 

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