WASHINGTON - It’s becoming commonplace in many African nations: as an election approaches, the internet goes dark. Gabon is the latest country to employ internet censorship during a closely contested election, but other countries, including Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Chad, Mali, Zimbabwe and the Republic of Congo have used the tactic this year, either during elections or in response to protests.
Observers say that as internet access becomes a necessity in the lives of many people, a dialogue is needed on how to balance security and openness. Right now, many countries simply opt for an information blackout when faced with unrest.
The organization Access Now, an advocacy group studying global digital risks, reported that there have been 40 widespread Internet disruptions in 25 countries this year alone.
“In the African context, where do you separate democracy and security?” asked Kamissa Camara, a West and Central Africa political analyst at the National Endowment for Democracy, in an interview with VOA Afrique.
“Is security more important than democracy? Do you place it above democracy? And who decides that the fact that young people use social networks threatens security in the country? These are the big questions to which I don’t have an answer.”
In Gabon, tensions were high following the announcement in late August that incumbent President Ali Bongo had won a narrow electoral victory over challenger Jean Ping. Many people took to the streets to voice dissatisfaction and security forces arrested more than 1,000 people.
The government also may have restricted access to social media tools including Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp, although there is no official government statement on that.
Jean-Rovys Dabany, a VOA Afrique correspondent in Libreville, said that internet speed in the capital became suspiciously slow as protesters violently confronted security forces and set fire to the parliament building on August 31. The internet has remained unreliable since that time.
“According to [protesters] this blockage is intended to prevent opposition members from using the internet as a means of mobilizing,” Dabany said. “But officially the government still hasn’t said anything on the blockage.”
Gabon shut down the internet for four full days and, once it was restored, instituted a “curfew” with users unable to access it between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. each day, CNN reported.
Increasing internet usage
Although Africa still has the lowest internet use in the world - 28 percent compared to nearly 50 percent worldwide - that figure is rising rapidly. There are now nearly 125 million Facebook users on the continent, according to internetworldstats.com.
Basile Gnon, president of BCCA Networks & Technologies, said this phenomenon of shutting down the internet is not simply about state control. He pointed out that many African countries have fragile institutions and try to preserve fragile peace. False or incendiary articles can quickly plunge a country into chaos.
“You have to remember the context of our African countries with a nervousness of the ability to manipulate crowds,” he said. “You know that in all media, whether it be written, audiovisual or internet, there are manipulators who enter the game.”
Nations have an interest in preserving peace, Gnon said. “If the state is aware that there is a tool that can, by manipulating a crowd, destabilize a situation that is already degraded, it has to take preventative measures,” he said.
Amid the protests and internet restrictions, there is at least one recent example in Africa where openness prevailed. During the 2012 protests in Senegal and the “Y'en a marre” movement of hip-hop musicians and rappers who helped lead to the ouster of President Abdoulaye Wade, social networks, including Twitter, remained open and were a vital tool for young people organizing events.
“Perhaps at that moment the government would have wanted to block access to certain networks, but it didn’t,” said Sadibou Sow, the CEO and founder of INAOTA, a Dakar-based IT service provider. “Since then, there hasn’t been a problem necessitating that type of blockage of access to networks.”