The practice of shutting down internet and mobile phone access to stifle dissent has become “entrenched” and more sophisticated in a growing number of countries as governments seek to retain power, a top United Nation-appointed independent rights expert said on Thursday.
Addressing the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Special Rapporteur Clement Voule warned that shutdowns are now “lasting longer” and “becoming harder to detect”.
The tactics were not limited to authoritarian regimes either, he insisted.
“Shutdowns have been observed in long-established democracies and more recent democracies alike, in line with broader trends of democratic recession across the world,” the Special Rapporteur said.
“In Latin America, for example, shutdowns were recorded only in Nicaragua and Venezuela as of 2018, but since then, Colombia, Cuba and Ecuador have reportedly adopted shutdowns in connection to mass protests.”
Worryingly, security services have honed their techniques in recent years by “throttling” bandwidth in specific areas to prevent demonstrators communicating with each other before or during protests.
They targeted “particular social media and messaging applications and specific localities and communities”, Voule said, adding that disruption to internet access has continued during the COVID-19 pandemic and impeded people’s access to essential health services.
“Shutdowns can …range from large-scale complete disconnection of the internet and mobile networks to other network disruptions, including the blocking of particular services or applications, such as social media platforms and messaging apps and throttling or the slowing down internet traffic to impede connectivity,” the rights expert explained in his report, Ending Internet Shutdowns: A Path Forward.
Citing a number of countries where the practice has been reported, the Special Rapporteur pointed out that residents of the vast Cox’s Bazar refugee camp complex in Bangladesh had endured a 355-day internet blackout beginning in September 2019.
This was allegedly after Rohingya refugees staged a demonstration commemorating the second anniversary of the Myanmar security forces’ campaign in Rakhine state, which former UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein likened to “textbook” ethnic cleansing.
Immediately after the shutdown began, large numbers of Bangladesh police and soldiers reportedly entered the camps, leading to reports of arrests, beatings, killings and a strict curfew, “while authorities confiscated thousands of mobile phones and banned refugees from buying SIM cards”, Voule said.
More than 100 million people in Ethiopia were affected by a three-week shutdown in July 2020, said the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association.
That communications blackout followed civil unrest sparked by the 29 June killing of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo singer and human rights defender, making it “extremely difficult to verify the number of people killed and injured in the crackdown on protests,” Voule said at the time.
Belarus has also adopted a range of disruption techniques including a nationwide internet shutdown amid mass protests against election results in August 2020, the rights expert continued, followed by the targeting of social media platforms used by pro-democracy gatherings which convened every Sunday from September until December 2020.
Turning to the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, Voule explained that the junta’s generals had ordered “several national internet blackouts …aimed at curbing the free flow of information and interfering with activism to defend democracy”.
These tactics provided “impunity for security forces carrying out arrests and violent crackdowns throughout the night”, while all telecommunications companies had been ordered to block Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, along with certain Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) which are often used to circumvent restrictions.
In Mali, social media and messaging were also partially blocked for five days in July 2020 amid mass protests seeking political reforms, the rights expert noted, citing similar instances in Iraq in October 2019, Iran – during demonstrations against rising fuel prices in November 2019 – and Sudan – during the eight-month pro-democracy movement in 2019 “to deter protesters from livestreaming police repression”.
According to data from the non-governmental organisation #KeepItOn Coalition, the Special Rapporteur highlighted at least 768 government-ordered internet disruptions in more than 60 countries since 2016.
Around 190 internet shutdowns affected peaceful assemblies, while some 55 election blackouts were documented from 2016 to May 2021. From January 2019 to May 2021, Mr. Voule noted at least 79 incidents of protest-related shutdowns, including during elections in Benin, Belarus, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Uganda and Kazakhstan, among others.
During the COVID pandemic, the rights expert maintained that internet and mobile phone freezes had also been accompanied “by other repressive tactics”, such as the criminalization of journalists and human rights defenders.
This was despite that fact that international human rights law has “well-established principles” which recognize that access to the internet is necessary for the exercise and enjoyment of human rights online and offline, including the right to peaceful assembly.