Don't switch off, internet is now a human right

Simon Martha Mkina

Investigative Journalist
Sep 5, 2020
By Simon Mkina

Every time governments turn off the internet, they use one of these five arguments to grease -up the real intention; it is a matter of national security; elections must be protected; violence must be avoided; cheating must be prevented, and the spread of false information should be stopped.

There are many countries, mostly with elements of draconian laws and orders which has used the banning of internet as a weapon to suppress citizens. Clear examples include shutdowns in Pakistan (many times in a year; and as captured in a case study), Indonesia (many times), Iran (many times), Iraq (many times), and Kazakhstan (many times). Moreover, the UN has warned of an increase in internet shutdowns worldwide.

Tanzania joined the list of countries disrupting the internet in 2020, during the country’s general elections. "In the lead-up to the presidential elections scheduled for October 28, 2020, authorities took a series of actions to restrict the digital rights of the Tanzanian people," says the organization Access Now.

Statistics from Access Now, an organization based in New York, USA, recently revealed that internet shut downs had decreased in 2019 and 2020 years after 78 countries stopped their communication networks for different reasons, many being as what described in this feature. The worst year was in 2021, where India – a country that was seen as a digital technology champion leading in the list - turned off the internet 106 times, out of 182 times.

Situation in Tanzania
Tanzania appeared in the Access Now Report in 2019 and 2022, as among the countries in Africa who are becoming habitual in suppressing human right. Although the country shut down the network and remained silent. The government did not make any announcements like other countries do. It decided to suppress the communication silently – for almost three days.

Some experts and ordinary people believe that the internet blackout was due to fear of the government in power, under President John Magufuli, who openly declared war with the free flow of information.

When the country was preparing for its general election in 2020, the opposition seemed to be gaining traction, which would harm the ruling party's options. "The Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority (TCRA), acting under the repressive (John) Magufuli government, accused to force telecom and internet service providers to install internet filtering equipment from the Israeli firm Allot, and then deliberately disrupted Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram one day before the election," says Access Now.

Apart from the internet shutdown, Magufuli's government has been accused of suppressing media, freedom of information and opposition parties. During his regime, the president ordered banning and the de-registration of some media houses including the suspension of the Swahili-language Mawio newspaper in 2016 for publishing "inflammatory" reporting, laws limiting demonstrations, threats to shut down radio and television stations that did not pay licence fees, and a 2018 bill forcing blogs and other online content providers to have government licences with restrictions.

Also, on April 23, 2020 Vodacom Telecom in Tanzania cut off internet for all vodacom users approximately 88 million users in Tanzania – by then. The internet was not available for 13 hours due to ‘cable cut’ reported later by Vodacom. This incidence happened without prior notice to users and no compensation of internet bundles made to users after they resumed internet service.

The Director General of the Communications Authority (TCRA) at the time, James Kulaba, refused to disclose the reasons for the shutdown of the network."TCRA does not exist to prevent people from getting information and joining, but to give them the opportunity to have a secure network to communicate and be a source of development," said the engineer, Kulaba to this reporter in Dar es Salaam.

Despite not agreeing that the communication network was shut down several times, he admitted that "if that happened, then, the equipment might have been under maintenance for a while.”

The internet is a human right; it's part of our lives

The internet blackout in Tanzania caused a shock, not only to members of political parties but also to many ordinary citizens. Many of them concurred in interviews with this reporter that their "lives were disrupted."

The citizens who were interviewed claimed that the shutdown of the internet affected the flow of their daily income-generating activities, as a significant part depended on the existence of such communication.

John Magayane (29), an official at an internet service shop operating in Mwenge, Dar es Salaam, admits that the internet shutdown caused him to lose his income for three days.He says his income of Sh. 40,000 to 50,000 per day were lost, thus destroying the flow of income in his business. In the shop, Magayane has 12 computers.

"Despite my lack of income, my clients lacked important services, as there are college students, businessmen, and people of various cadres who rely on the internet to do their business," adds Magayane.

Dr. Lenny Kasoga, an economist, once a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam (now retired), explains the disadvantages of shutting down the internet are greater in today's world that relies on the internet for communication.

He says that governments that shut down the internet do not have any reason to do so, but rather fear the power of the public for "evil actions against them" and that it is just the oppression of rulers who are not properly responsible.

"If you look carefully, you realize that all the claims made by the authorities to block the internet are just nonsense, there is no reason to do that, whether during elections or during peace or any other period," he adds.

The economist says that many businesses that import and sell products are more dependent on internet communication; when it is turned off, the interpretation is to increase the poverty of the people.

Fatma Karume, lawyer of the high court and human rights activist, speaking about the the internet shutdown in Tanzania says, "that was the brutality of the rulers and suppression of democracy."

The lawyer says that blocking the internet can be explained in a few words: "it is a dictatorship" because it prevents the basic human right, which is to communicate, to have freedom of expression without interference. She tweets a lot on the shutdown.

"The shutdown of the Internet is used by oppressive states to prevent opposition and take away the rights to communicate - it is often used during important periods such as elections or demonstrations, but basically, the victims are many who don't even like to get involved in politics - it is against human rights," she says.

Can someone sue the government for shutting down the internet? Fatma says "yes." The government can be sued in court for shutting down the internet.

The Executive Secretary of the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT), Kajubi Mukajanga, says what the government did at that time was a bad sign of the operation of a country that doesn’t care about human rights.

"There was no reason to prevent people from communicating with others to continue with their activities that depend on the presence of the Internet in order to work and do business, many were stuck during that period and people lost their income - it was not right at all," he says.

A student at the St. Joseph University in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Lameck Kishimbo says the closure of the internet does not only affect politicians, as many governments think, but it is inevitable that it affects the economy of businesses that rely on the internet.

Lameck, who was in his second year when the internet was shut down, studying for a bachelor's degree in computer science, says all students rely more on the internet to get books and other knowledge, when it is shut down, for whatever reasons, it affects the conduct of their studies. He advises the current government to "stop even thinking about shutting down the internet."

Does VPN help?
When the internet was shutdown in 2020, Tanzanians are more motivated to join a system that can beat the ban on internet use on mobile phones.The system, popularly known as VPN –a virtual private network—was highly recommended by many, including activists and internet professionals. One of them is activist Maria Sarungi, who is dedicated to educating the public on how to bypass the ban on internet access.

Using Twitter more, Maria taught how to download VPN in various ways while explaining its benefits, not only when the internet is closed but also helps 'security' when using the internet.

An internet communication expert from the Microx Solutions company in Mwanza City, Amrsan Shah, explains that VPN is a system capable of bypassing ways to block internet communication because it does not enter or go through an agent.

A VPN extends a private network across a public one, enabling users to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if their devices were connected to the private network. A VPN's benefits include increased functionality and security and access to resources inaccessible on the public network.

"It is very difficult to block the internet for people who use the VPN system, and it may be the correct and safest way at all times when there is a ban on the use of the internet in any country," he adds.

Peggy Hicks, Director of the Department of Cooperation, Special Procedures, and Developmental Justice, in the Office of Human Rights of the United Nations (OHCHR) says - "when you see governments struggling to shut down the internet, start to realize that human rights issues are in doubt.

Furthermore, The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights has called upon states "not to engage in or condone any disruption of access to the internet or any other digital technologies for segments of the public or an entire population." It is to be seen whether the Tanzanian government will abide by these guidances.

• "This story was written and produced as part of a media skills development programme delivered by Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher."
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