When democracy goes dark

Image Credit: Maurizio Pesce, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

In the wake of recent internet blackouts in Uganda and Myanmar, Megan Skinnader examines the impact of online censorship on democracy.

Restrictions on internet access always warrant questions on the fragility of democracy and both the freedom of expression and the freedom of association. Over 35 countries had restricted access to the internet or social media at least once 2019. These are often justified by authorities as a measure to minimise growing unrest, ensure national security, or stop the spread of fake news. Internet blackouts have been observed recently on the eve of the Ugandan election and during the Myanmar military coup. There have also been major disruptions to networks in Russia amid the protests surrounding Alexei Navalny’s detention. Combined with the coronavirus pandemic, these blackouts are not only impeding protest and the criticism of despotic leaders, but also denying people crucial health information and guidance. Beyond emergencies, they are denying people connection and communication in a time of heightened isolation.

The Myanmar military coup at the start of February is a recent widespread internet blackout where netblocks had reported “a near-total internet shutdown”. The broad outage followed a military order to block Twitter and Instagram. Facebook had also been partially blocked earlier in the week. According to Netblocks, a website ‘mapping net freedom’, national connectivity fell initially to 75% then to 50% on Monday the 1st of February, extending the problem beyond internet access and restricting any telecommunication. This increasingly popular tactic by autocratic leaders was already adapted in Myanmar in 2019 in what was declared by Human Rights Watch as the “world’s longest internet shutdown” in the Rakhine and Chin states. 

In 2013, Article 77 of Myanmar’s telecommunications law was passed enabling the government to cut off all telecommunications during a national emergency. The article empowers the Ministry of Transport and Communications, with the approval of Union Government, to not only temporarily suspend telecommunication services but also collect any information and communications from telecom operators and internet service providers. This law has been heavily criticised by human rights organisations due to its unclear definition of blocking and its inability to ensure democratic oversight and transparency. It is inconsistent with international laws and standards of freedom of expression placing many businesses in the difficult position of complying with their licensing conditions or complying with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Telecom companies could essentially deny the government order and it technically lies in their hands. To say this, though, would undermine the governments hold on the media and the fact that journalists are still persecuted under Article 66, a strict defamation law essentially forcing state media to function as a propaganda outlet. 

Again, the same strategy was adopted during the Ugandan election in mid-January and is a regular occurrence during election time in Uganda. The internet shutdown occurred a day before the presidential election and the blackout was lifted only 4 days after the election. The authorities claimed the blackout was to avoid interference in the election and again, in the interest of national security. The government were lucky with their timing as Facebook and Twitter had taken down phony accounts promoting Museveni and were essentially handed the rhetoric of the West unfairly dictating foreign election results. The blackouts were allegedly supposed to be targeted but nearly 25% of Ugandans were affected on the eve of the election. The election ended one of the most violent campaigns in decades and saw the deaths of at least 54 people. Yoweri Museveni, who has served as president since 1986 won the election against Bobi Wine who claimed, ‘widespread fraud’. 

Despite authorities attempting to justify the necessity of the blackout to avoid election tampering, there have been widespread claims of ballot-box stuffing. The US cancelled a diplomatic observed mission after too many of its staff were denied permission to monitor the election. Although not an isolated innocent in Uganda, it presents a worrying direction in terms of muzzling democratic discourse and online media scrutiny. Questions must be asked about the onus on social media companies to address online incitements while balancing the possibility of playing right into the rhetoric of authoritarian leaders looking for any good reason to further censor online criticisms. 

While many countries use the excuse of elections or national security threats for these internet blackouts, Facebook, Twitter and Google services have been banned in China since 2009. Provoked by riots in Xinjiang, the shutdown was meant as a method of restricting communications among the activists. The omnipresent censorship regime is called the ‘Great Firewall’ for a reason. The thoroughness of the control on online communication and expression extends to keyword filtering and arrests of those we somehow manage to post on sensitive political issues. The blatant and unapologetic censorship in China is a dangerous endgame that many countries edge towards. Reporters Without Borders rank China’s freedom of press situation as “very serious”, the worst possible ranking on their scale. 

Internet blackouts have a direct correlation to the strength of democracy and as more leaders and regimes use this as a tactic to retain power, we further struggle to uphold democracy.

Read more on the personal impact of the Myanmar military coup in our Columns section.