Access Now files new legal intervention in Cameroon against shutdowns

Aug. 2, 2018 (YAOUNDÉ) — Following over a year of judicial and political delays, Access Now’s partners at Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) and Emmanuel Nkea of Veritas Law Offices Cameroon have filed a renewed challenge in Cameroon’s Constitutional Council to the government-ordered internet shutdowns in the country’s English-speaking regions last year.

Access Now submitted a legal intervention to the court in support of the plaintiff in this new case, which has already had preliminary hearings at the Constitutional Council.

Cameroon’s first internet shutdown lasted 94 days, starting on January 17, 2017, and ending just after the initial lawsuits were filed, around April 20, 2017. This shutdown violated the human rights of millions of people living in Anglophone Cameroon, disrupting all facets of life, from education, to business, to healthcare and other basic services.

Journalists and civil society organizations have documented the many harms of Cameroon’s government-ordered shutdowns, yet no one has been held to account,” said Peter Micek, General Counsel at Access Now. “Those in Anglophone regions lost money and business opportunities for months at a time, lost contact with loved ones abroad — and doctors in the city — during sickness and grieving, and lost the opportunity to lift their voices in support of democracy. We are asking the new Constitutional Council to consider this damage and uphold both the Constitution and Cameroon’s commitments to human rights treaties by finding in favor of the plaintiff. A strong decision could help prevent shutdowns during Cameroon’s October elections and reinforce the rule of law.

In February of this year, for the first time since a 1996 law amending Cameroon’s constitution called for its creation, the Constitutional Council of the Supreme Court was formed after President Paul Biya appointed the council’s 11 members. The council members were sworn into office by Parliament on March 6. Prior to these appointments, the Supreme Court had been standing in for the council to hear any constitutional law cases.

Access Now and Internet Sans Frontieres intervened in the previous case, submitting an amicus brief in favor of the plaintiffs. After initially losing the paperwork for the previous filing, the Supreme Court eventually acknowledged receipt, but failed to schedule any hearings on the matter. The process has raised suspicions that these delays may have been a deliberate attempt to frustrate those pursuing the case.

With the Constitutional Council now in place, Veritas Law and MLDI have filed a new lawsuit, this time against both the Cameroonian government and the telecommunications authorities who ordered the shutdown. Access Now has once again intervened, highlighting the many ways in which this internet shutdown violated both the Cameroonian constitution and the international human rights instruments to which Cameroon is a party.

In a region of the country experiencing increasing tension between local English-speaking populations and the French-speaking national government, this internet shutdown was designed to undermine people’s ability to peacefully protest, to access information, and to share their stories — including documentation of police brutality and other human rights abuses.

What began as a peaceful protest movement has escalated into a violent conflict, with hundreds of thousands displaced. Human rights investigators for the United Nations are being denied access to the country, while the government refuses to launch independent investigations into atrocities and repression.

For the intervention in support of this most recent case, Access Now has added the personal stories of people who suffered from the internet shutdowns in Cameroon in Anglophone regions, ranging from teachers to web designers to doctors, as well as families simply trying to stay connected. A range of human rights, from civil and political to economic, social, and cultural, were violated. The amicus brief makes clear, “The cumulative and deep impacts of this discrimination could be described as ‘internet segregation’ and should be roundly rejected by this Council.”

“The Constitutional Council has the opportunity to issue a landmark ruling early in its tenure,” added Micek. “First, by hearing this case, the court will signal that citizens — and not just the government — hold standing in the Council, providing an important foundation upon which Cameroon’s constitutional can build and truly defend the interests of the Cameroonian people. Further, a ruling in favor of the victims of this internet shutdown sets a vital precedent, paving the way for victims of all other internet shutdowns in Cameroon to achieve redress.”

Already, a second internet shutdown lasting from October 2017 to March 2018 further entrenched the damage done early last year, and members of the global #KeepItOn coalition are closely monitoring for renewed disruptions as tensions continue to escalate and the presidential election scheduled for October 2018 approaches.

The Constitutional Council has already come under fire, as one of its members has officially endorsed President Biya’s bid for reelection, despite council members’ commitment to remain neutral and impartial under all circumstances. A ruling on this case in favor of the people of Cameroon, holding the government responsible for respecting free expression and other basic human rights, would be a strong step toward establishing the Council’s independence from the political branches of government.