Today, Access submitted a letter to UN and African Union experts requesting their urgent intervention on the internet shutdown in Burundi, where social media services have been cut off in the face of public unrest. The letter underscores the importance of the internet to realizing human rights, and explains how shutdowns often enable egregious human rights violations. As the letter reads:
The UN Human Rights Council has affirmed that the rights that are enjoyed offline must also be protected on the internet. Blocking access to the internet, or applications on the internet such as social media, violates the right to freedom of expression by denying the right of persons to seek, receive, and impart information. Shutdowns frequently occur during periods of civil unrest, directly impacting the right to association. As a result, shutdowns often precede and enable egregious human rights violations because journalists and witnesses are unable to effectively report on repressive actions by state and non-state actors.
According to various reports, the government of Burundi ordered the shutdown of certain social media applications on the mobile internet beginning on April 27, 2015. The applications, including Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, and Viber, continue to be blocked as of the morning of April 29, 2015 Central Africa Time. Media reports confirm clashes between civilians and between civilians and police. Although fixed-line internet does not appear to be impacted, the majority of internet users in Burundi rely upon mobile internet for connectivity.
The letter also urges action on the part of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (David Kaye), the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (Maina Kiai), and the Rapporteur on Free Expression at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Faith Pansy Tlakula):
We humbly request that your Excellencies, in your vital position as Special Rapporteurs, make a joint statement or separate statements:
- declaring internet shutdowns to be a per se violation of the right to freedom of expression;
- declaring internet shutdowns to be a per se violation of the right to freedom of association when ordered during public demonstrations; and
- calling upon the government of Burundi to withdraw its order to telecommunications companies to shut down social media networks.
Our Telco Action Plan provides detailed advice about how telecommunications companies can push back on government requests that restrict user rights. We urge telcos in Burundi to consult the plan and reach out to Access for further guidance.