As the world navigates the challenges and tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet and digital communications platforms have been a vital tool for keeping people connected, continuing work and education, and providing access to life-saving information and treatment. Every part of our lives has been impacted, big and small, and elections are no exception.
While some governments postponed elections at the beginning of the year, others — including Guinea, Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire, Myanmar, the United States, and Ghana — will proceed with their elections as scheduled.
The internet plays a crucial role in enabling us to access information and remain informed about the election process. Access to the internet and social media platforms gives us the opportunity to participate in the voting process, engage in public discourse, and hold our elected leaders accountable, which are all important tenets of every democratic society.
Despite the critical role the internet plays in advancing democratic principles like participatory governance, elections are increasingly becoming a trigger point for internet shutdowns. Governments including Togo, Burundi, and Belarus have already flipped the kill switch during elections in 2020.
Make no mistake: internet shutdowns violate fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and opinion, access to information, press freedom, and the freedom of assembly. By disrupting the free flow of information during elections, shutdowns exacerbate any existing tensions in a society and increase the likelihood of protests. They can also serve to obscure violence and human rights violations perpetrated by governments or other actors. Without access to communications tools, voters are blocked from full participation in electoral processes, human rights defenders cannot document violations, international observers cannot monitor the elections closely, and journalists and the media are unable to report on the election process and outcomes.
In this critical moment, with six at-risk elections scheduled within the next two months, the #KeepItOn coalition is working diligently to monitor potential disruptions, distribute circumvention resources, and urge authorities around the world to #KeepItOn.
Take action: urge these countries to #KeepItOn during their election!
Tell Guinea to #KeepItOn
UPDATE (Oct 24): Tensions and violence have continued to rise as Guineans awaited results of the election on October 18, with reports of police using live ammunition against protesters. Alongside announcing the election results yesterday, October 23, 2020, we received several reports that the internet was disrupted across Guinea starting at about 07:00 UTC on the country’s major network providers. There was no official explanation by the authorities in Guinea for the internet blackout.
On October 18, 2020, the people of Guinea will go to the polls to elect their president for the next five-year term. Exactly one week before the election, Orange — a leading internet service provider in the country — sent messages to its customers informing them there could be network disruptions on October 10-15 due to maintenance work on the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) cable.
This looks suspicious. It’s not the first time the authorities in Guinea have announced there could be a disruption in internet service ahead of important national events. In March 2020, authorities in Guinea disrupted access to the internet and social media platforms during a crucial referendum on constitutional reforms after the country’s telecommunications infrastructure operator, Guinéenne de Large Bande (GUILAB), assured the people that maintenance work on the ACE cable that would affect internet services had been postponed.
Protests have already erupted in the country, following the announcement that President Alpha Conde would run a third term, in contradiction to Guinea’s constitution, which provides for a maximum of two 5-year mandates. The upcoming election is critical to determine the fate of the people for the next presidential term.
International pressure helps! Join us in calling on Guinea’s government and internet service providers like Orange to #KeepItOn.
Tell Tanzania to #KeepItOn
Over the years, Tanzania’s civic space has shrunk, and there are reports of human rights abuses perpetrated against journalists and activists, while lawmakers are adopting laws and policies to restrict and stifle freedom of expression, online and off. The recently adopted Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulation, 2020, which outlines stringent conditions for the use of digital communications platforms, has been described as a threat to the enjoyment of digital rights in the country. Despite these restrictions in Tanzania’s online space, the internet and social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, among others, are playing a crucial role in citizens’ participation in national discourse. Given the government’s recent obsession with regulating the internet, it’s not clear that these tools will remain available during the elections scheduled for October 28, 2020. Join us to demand that Tanzania #KeepItOn.
UPDATE (Oct 24): The Tanzanian government has ordered telco service providers to suspend bulk short messaging services (SMS) and bulk voice services. We have also received reports that individual text messages with election-related keywords are being blocked, and more expansive internet blocking may follow.
UDPATE (Oct 27): As of this morning, WhatsApp, Twitter, and potentially Telegram, along with several circumvention tools, are blocked.
Tell Côte d’Ivoire to #KeepItOn
With elections scheduled to take place on October 31, 2020, join us in appealing to stakeholders including the government and the internet service providers in Côte d’Ivoire to continue to invest in an open, secure and free internet access for all throughout the election period and beyond. You can urge the telecommunications ministry to #KeepItOn on Twitter or Facebook.
Tell the U.S. to #KeepItOn
November 3, 2020, will mark one of the most contentious elections in recent history for the United States. With nearly three weeks to go, more than 14 million people have already started voting through mail-in ballots and early voting at local elections offices, and many are expecting significant delays after election day before a clear winner is decided. With the current sitting president having refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, a heated battle over a Supreme Court nominee that could ultimately determine the election’s outcome, rampant disinformation, voter suppression, likely intimidation at the polls, and beyond, we are expecting the unexpected. President Trump has already made moves to suppress the free flow of information and could take even more drastic steps. We expect to see widespread demonstrations in the leadup to and following the election, and it is essential that service providers do everything they can to keep people well connected during this period of uncertainty. If you are in the United States, we encourage you to contact your mobile service provider and ask them to deploy additional resources to the parts of your community where large gatherings may take place.
Tell Myanmar to #KeepItOn
Between June 2019 and August 2020, the government of Myanmar cut internet access in Chin and Rakhine states. The government attempted to justify the shutdown as a measure for keeping public order and ensuring national security in conflict zones, even though there is no evidence to show that shutdowns are effective for that purpose. As COVID-19 spread, residents in these states were denied access to timely health and public safety information. The shutdown may also have served to cover up the documented human rights violations perpetrated against people living in these affected places. Access Now and other members of the #KeepItOn coalition were among those in the international community strongly condemning the shutdown. With elections scheduled for November 8, 2020, it is imperative that Myanmar ensure access to the internet and digital communications platforms — during the election period and thereafter. Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communication has been responsible for ordering service providers to cut service during past shutdowns. If you’re on Facebook, you can urge them to #KeepItOn here.
Tell Ghana to #KeepItOn
In 2016, the government of Ghana kept social media platforms on throughout the elections even after the then Inspector General of Police threatened that these platforms were going to be disrupted on election day. Ghana is among the few countries in Africa that hasn’t shut down the internetJoin us to remind the government of Ghana to uphold this commitment and #KeepItOn throughout the upcoming election in December 2020.
What happened in Togo, Burundi, and Belarus — and what’s next
Why are we asking you to speak out now? Because governments keep interfering with internet access in clear efforts to influence the outcome of elections — and in many cases, they are acting with impunity, degrading democratic processes at will. Your voice matters.
On February 22, 2020, authorities in Togo cut access to messaging services such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram shortly after elections ended. This disconnected people from these platforms via the country’s two major internet service providers, Togo Telecom and Atlantique Telecom networks. The tainted election saw President Faure Gnassingbé claim victory with 72% of votes, and the opposition has accused the government of widespread election fraud.
Burundi also flipped the kill switch during presidential elections. On May 20, 2020, as millions of Burundians went out to vote, the Pierre Nkurunziza government rushed to block access to social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube. This blatant denial of the rights to access information and freedom of expression cast a dark shadow over the much-anticipated election in Burundi.
In Belarus, authorities blocked internet access on August 9, 2020, as Belarusians waited in long lines to cast their ballot for the next president. The internet blackout knocked out both landline and mobile services. State authorities also blocked independent media websites and social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vkontakte — a major Russian online social media and social networking service. As protests broke out over the disputed outcome of the election, the government continued to disrupt internet access. Telcos and multinational companies such as Sandvine and A1 Telekom Austria Group implemented the censorship, and Access Now and our partners are demanding that they take responsibility for their role, denounce shutdowns, and take the necessary measures to prevent any further blocking or network disruptions. We are encouraging organizations across the globe to sign our open letter to support this demand.
To ensure the integrity of elections, we must stop shutdowns. If a country imposes an internet shutdown, it immediately puts the credibility and fairness of the election in question. When internet access is cut during an election, it is usually marred by protests, violence, and reports of human rights abuses.
This is important: we can’t let up on the pressure. We need continued and sustained efforts in advocating against these blatant acts of repression around the globe. The #KeepItOn coalition unites over 220 organizations globally, but we need your help to safeguard human rights during the elections this year and the years to come.
More ways you can help fight internet shutdowns during elections
Elections are a time for free and open democratic discourse, and when a government deliberately closes channels for communications, it interferes with our capacity to get access to information and form opinions — basic human rights to which we are all entitled. You can increase your support in the fight to end internet shutdowns during elections by doing the following:
We will keep fighting to ensure that any future elections are free from internet shutdowns, all around the world. We hope you join us.