The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Commission), acting through the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (the Special Rapporteur), Commissioner Lawrence Mute, expresses concern on internet shutdowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recalling the Commission’s statement of 24 March 2020 on human rights based effective responses to the COVID-19 virus in Africa, the Special Rapporteur reiterates the critical duty of States in times of public health emergencies to ensure that members of the public receive accurate, regular, accessible and science-based information on the threat COVID-19 poses to their health, the role and impact of the measures adopted for preventing and containing the virus, the precautionary measures that members of the public should take, and on the scale of the spread.
The Special Rapporteur notes that any attempt by States to cut or restrict access to the internet, block social media platforms or other communications services, or slow down internet speeds, restricts the public’s access to health information that may be used not only to protect them from contracting the virus but also contain its spread. Additionally, at a time when Governments have imposed measures that limit movement, closed schools and businesses to contain the pandemic spread, the public needs access to the internet for educational and economic purposes. Internet shutdowns also disrupt the ability of journalists to verify information and keep the public updated on the measures governments are taking to contain the spread of the virus.
The Special Rapporteur notes that in Ethiopia, the Government began cutting connections to mobile phone networks, landlines and the internet in the Oromia region in response to unrest in the region on 03 January 2020, and services were not restored until 31 March 2020. The Government of Guinea imposed an internet and social media shutdown between 21 March and 23 March 2020, coinciding with parliamentary elections and a contested constitutional referendum.
The Special Rapporteur reminds African States that internet and social media shutdowns violate the right to freedom of expression and access to information, contrary to Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The internet and social media have given voice to the people of Africa who may now discourse on social, economic and political issues far more than ever before, and States should not take away that voice.
Indeed, Principle 38(1) of the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, adopted during theCommission’s 65th Ordinary Session in November 2019, provides as follows:
- States shall not interfere with the right of individuals to seek, receive and impart information through any means of communication and digital technologies, through measures such as the removal, blocking or filtering of content, unless such interference is justifiable and compatible with international human rights law and standards.
Paragraph 2 provides that:
- ‘States shall not engage in or condone any disruption of access to the internet and other digital technologies for segments of the public or an entire population.’
The Special Rapporteur calls on African States to take all measures to guarantee respect and protect the right to freedom of expression and access to information through ensuring access to internet and social media services especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. States should not disregard rule-of-law dictates by exploiting the pandemic to establish overreaching interventions.