The Arab Spring was also called the Facebook Revolution. In countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, social media was used more than ever before to organise protest and to raise local and international awareness of the uprisings.
Even in countries with fewer social media networks, such as Libya and Yemen, electronic devices such as cellphones and email were used to communicate news about political events. In a similar way, the Gaza War of 2014 became a watershed moment for civilians trapped in the besieged enclave to raise local and international awareness about the battle. Social media sites allowed Gazans to communicate and inform the world about the atrocities committed by the Israeli Defence Force.
Social media has helped to change the way in which war is narrated and possibly the narration itself. Some described the social media front as an additional front of war.
The disruptive and democratising power of internet communication and social media is not lost on African governments. In recent days, the Zimbabwean government shut down the internet for three days between January 15 and 18.
This followed the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government’s order to cellphone companies such as Vodacom to shut down for three days as voting ended in the highly disputed presidential election.
Alongside the shutdown in the DRC, many complained that text messaging became more difficult and media was increasingly censured. Radio France Internationale was closed. The shutdown in the DRC made it easier for government to put out fake election results.
The fact that these shutdowns occurred just days after the United Nations passed a historic resolution specifically condemning internet shutdowns shows the disregard for international law both in Zimbabwe and in the DRC. The actions of these governments constitute a violation of international human rights law protecting freedom of expression and media freedom as well as a violation of the domestic law in these countries.
These decisions to block access to the internet raise the question about whether a government should be allowed to exercise such power. Zimbabwe’s biggest cellphone operator, Econet Wireless Zimbabwe Ltd, yielded to directives to shut down.
Under Zimbabwe’s Constitution, telecommunications companies and other internet service providers have freedom of establishment. The law further states that these companies are independent of government control and political interests. There is currently no law that authorises the government or any service provider to cut off internet connectivity.
As confirmed by the high court in Zimbabwe, the minister of state in the office of the president does not have the power to switch off the internet. The application challenging the internet shutdown was brought by civic society organisations.
Zimbabwe’s president later tweeted that the internet shutdown by his government was “temporary, tactical and aimed at restoring the peace”. But it is widely believed that the shutdown was calculated to mask atrocities committed by the military in the most brutal crackdown on the civilian population since the 1980s. At least 12 unarmed people were killed and hundreds injured. During the shutdown, in a breach of the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression and the media, it was impossible to access or share information relating to the shootings and beatings by soldiers.
Internet access is a human rights issue. In 2015, experts from the United Nations Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Organisation of American States and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a historic statement declaring that internet shutdowns can never be justified under international human rights law, even in times of conflict
In Estonia, one of the most connected countries in the world, access to the internet is a basic human right. According to the United States organisation, Freedom House, which conducts research and advocacy on political freedom and human rights, internet freedom is the highest in Estonia and Iceland. China has the lowest level of internet freedom, followed by Syria and Ethiopia. Iran, Cuba, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
One solution to internet shutdowns and censure might lie in further developing and employing technology that would allow citizens to access the internet without depending on service providers that can be corrupted or manipulated by the state. Service providers such as Econet in Zimbabwe seem incapable of resisting government pressure and directives because they are dependent on the state for a licence to operate.
One way in which government interference can be avoided or circumvented could come in the form of affordable satellite-based internet. But the high cost and low bandwidth currently obstruct wider use of such connectivity. Starlink, a Space X offshoot among other such companies, will launch the first of their low Earth-orbit satellite constellation this year. Once deployed, this satellite constellation promises to provide internet connectivity, which could revolutionise internet access especially in parts of the world where people cannot afford internet and in countries that impose shutdowns.
It is urgently necessary that the liberation of access to the internet should be prioritised by human rights protectors and international bodies tasked with upholding human rights.
Mia Swart is research director at the Human Sciences Research Council. Fadzayi Mahere is an advocate in Zimbabwe