When the internet is shut down during an election, people in these countries are plunged into darkness. People outside these countries cannot scrutinize what they can’t see. That’s an attack on democracy, and it hurts human rights. Only two months into 2021, we have already seen authorities impose internet shutdowns during presidential elections in Uganda, an ongoing military coup in Myanmar, and as a measure to quell nationwide protests in India. These actions are drawing more attention to internet shutdowns and the global #KeepItOn campaign to stop them — and stirring outrage from Rihanna and Greta Thunberg. Our #KeepItOn 2021 Elections Watch is aimed at helping people work together to prevent, circumvent, and document any further deliberate election shutdowns this year.
The internet and social media platforms play a critical role in enhancing participatory governance in democratic society. They provide space for communicating, public debate, seeking information on election processes and candidates, reporting and documenting events and outcomes, and holding governments accountable for their actions — including their promises to the people. Journalists, human rights defenders, election observers, civil society actors, and other relevant stakeholders count on the internet to monitor and report on elections, and this facilitates transparency and openness in the process.
Internet shutdowns do the opposite, tainting elections and destroying their integrity. They draw global attention to the problems in a democracy.
Why do governments shut down the internet?
Governments attempt to justify shutdowns by citing “national security” and “public safety concerns,” “preventing the spread of misinformation and disinformation,” or sometimes as “precautionary measures.” None of these purposely vague excuses holds up to any form of scrutiny.
The reality is that governments usually implement shutdowns to quell peaceful protests, silence dissent during elections, or prevent information about conflicts from making international headlines. Frighteningly, internet shutdowns also provide cover for state-sponsored violence that violates international human rights law.
Last year, the governments of Togo, Burundi, Guinea, Belarus, and Tanzania shut down the internet or blocked social media platforms during elections. In 2021, many more countries with a history of internet shutdowns are headed to the polls, and people fighting for their democracies need the world’s solidarity and support.
What elections are we watching in 2021?
The Republic of the Congo
March 21 — Presidential election
The Republic of Congo has a long history of internet shutdowns. In 2015 in Congo-Brazzaville, authorities cut access to the internet ahead of protests to oppose extending the term of President Sassou Nguesso, who has remained in office since 1997.
April 11 — Presidential election
Chad authorities have a long record of blocking social media during important national events. As a response to anti-government protests the government choked access to social platforms — including WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube — for a startling 472 days between 2018 and 2019.More recently, in July 2020, Chad blocked social media, slowed down the internet, and censored citizen journalists. Even though authorities restored full internet speed a few weeks later, they continued to block WhatsApp — one of the most popular social media platforms in Chad — and it remains blocked to this day.
As Chad prepares for the presidential elections on April 11, 2021, the #KeepItOn coalition is urging the government to lift all restrictions during the elections and beyond. Join us.
Authorities in Chad must restore access to all blocked platforms and #KeepItOn before, during, and after the election on April 11. ISPs must restore access to WhatsApp and be more transparent about shutdown orders from the government.
April 11 — Presidential election
In 2019, the government of Benin joined the shame list of governments weaponizing internet shutdowns during elections. Authorities began by blocking social media platforms — including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and Instagram — then blocked Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), then cut access to the internet entirely — all within a day.
June 5 — General election
In line with a five-year trend of devastating shutdowns and targeted website blockings, the government once again is denying millions of people in Ethiopia full access to the internet. The government cut access to the internet in 2020 after protesters demanded justice for the killing of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, an Oromo activist and musician. In 2021, the government has interfered with access in Tigray. People continue to face daily connectivity challenges and are not only digitally cut off from their communities, but also unable to work or study to full capacity. Media and human rights groups denied access to the internet struggle to document alleged human rights abuses by authorities. All eyes will be on Ethiopia this coming election.
June 6 — General election
In 2019 mass anti-government demonstrations took over the streets of Iraq, with thousands of people from all walks of life protesting against unemployment, failing public services including long power outages, and government corruption. The government swiftly hit the kill switch. We are warning against yet another deliberate disruption.
In 2019, as protesters took to the streets of Iraq to call for government reform, the government responded by shutting down the internet. The country’s general election is coming up on June 6, and authorities must #KeepItOn to ensure democracy!
June 18 — Presidential election
Over the last decade, strategic government-mandated internet shutdowns in Iran have censored critical voices. In 2009, authorities slowed internet access and warned journalists working for international media to confine themselves to their offices for several days around elections.
In November 2019, the government once again shut down the internet, in an evident attempt to mask its acts of violence. Amnesty International reports that security forces killed at least 304 people — including children — during five days of protests that swept across the country.
In a country where authorities frequently interfere with internet access, and where social media platforms — such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and most recently Signal — are only accessible via VPNs, we cannot rule out an internet shutdown during the country’s elections in June.
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August 12 — General election
Following the 2016 general elections, local media outlets reported at least two days of internet shutdowns and slowdowns in parts of Zambia, with mobile services being most affected. Notably, the government hit opposition stronghold areas. In 2020, Freedom House reported another two-day shutdown. Government officials said the shutdown was due to heavy rains, but the timing is suspicious as the nation was experiencing “the worst political tension in recent years,” and United Nations Development Program officials speculate it was politically motivated. As the 2021 elections draw near and tensions continue to rise, the government must commit to keeping people connected.
September 19 — Legislative election
Shutdowns have plagued Russia in recent years, with authorities covertly blocking Moscow’s mobile internet in July and August of 2019 during the Moscow City Duma elections protests. Authorities in Ingushetia shut down mobile internet on multiple occasions in June, October, and November of 2018, and in March 2019, as people organized and headed out to the streets to protest the new border deal with Chechnya. Network disruptions were also reported in the Ural region during the November 2019 testing of the Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment as a part of the Russian sovereign internet project.
As Russian authorities are notorious for cracking down on protesters and critical voices, the risk of an election internet blackout this year is significant.
November 7 — General election
Even before Nicaragua’s 2018 uprisings, President Daniel Ortega was suspected of influencing and censoring news outlets. The #KeepItOn community received reports of systematic online attacks during this period, alongside unverified reports of internet disruptions in communities across the country, including cuts to electricity and other basic services. The Nicaraguan government has also recently adopted a repressive cybercrime law paving the way for more restrictions to online speech, and passed legislation essentially banning opposition candidates from the 2021 election. We will closely monitor the 2021 general elections.
The Republic of The Gambia
December 4 — Presidential election
Authorities in The Gambia joined the shame list when President Yahya Jammeh plunged the nation into darkness on the eve of the 2016 presidential elections, just as journalists had speculated he would. The Adama Barrow government has not deliberately disrupted access to the internet, but there are frequent network disruptions attributed to undersea cable cuts that continue to affect access. With an election at the end of 2021, authorities must find a lasting solution to these cuts to ensure the people have access to free, open, and secure internet and digital communications tools.
December 24 — General election
Muammar Gaddafi’s government reportedly blocked access to Facebook in Tripoli, and sporadically shut down the internet in other parts of the country, as a response to anti-government protests in 2011. To date, there have been no reports of shutdowns under the interim government for Libya, but the precedent is set, and the world is watching.
Ahead of Libya’s elections on December 24, authorities should commit to #KeepItOn and take all necessary steps to ensure there are no disruptions to the internet or communications platforms during this critical moment for democracy.
Who already voted in 2021, and what happened?
February 21 — Presidential runoff election
Major internet service providers (ISPs) disrupted mobile internet in Niger on February 24, 2021, three days after the election. As protests broke out in Niamey and other parts of the country following the outcome announcement of the presidential run-off, internet traffic plummeted.
January 14 — Presidential election
Following the dangerous example it set in the 2016 elections, and amidst a growing crackdown on media, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians, the Republic of Uganda shut off the internet on the eve of the 2021 general elections. Authorities lifted the internet censorship and social media blackout on February 10, but the impact the disruptions had on the lives and rights of people in Uganda lives on.
What you can do about election shutdowns
Join the #KeepItOn movement. Internet shutdowns are a global issue, and you can be part of the campaign to stop them by applying public pressure. The #KeepItOn coalition encourages everyone who wants to fight shutdowns — activists, civil society actors, and everyday citizens — to join us in calling out governments, telecommunication companies, and every other actor who plays a role in these blatant acts of censorship. You can learn more about the #KeepItOn coalition and how to push back against shutdowns through the #KeepItOn FAQ.
To fight shutdowns in your country, connect with us. If you are anticipating an election and you think your government will impose an internet shutdown to impede the process or silence dissenting voices, you can connect to fellow advocates for a free and open internet using the #KeepItOn hashtag. You can use the #KeepItOn toolkit for more information and downloadable advocacy materials. Remember, if you are a human rights advocate, or part of a group that fights for human rights, and you are concerned about your safety and need help with increasing your digital security, our Digital Security Helpline is a resource for you.
Help document the harm of shutdowns. Have you lived through an internet shutdown? If you share your story with us as part of our Shutdown Stories project, your voice can become part of a growing body of evidence to establish the harm caused by shutdowns and hold those responsible to account.