Access Now & ISF file legal intervention against Cameroon shutdown

With your help, the #KeepItOn coalition has been documenting the many costs of internet shutdowns: losing business and learning opportunities, losing access to doctors and healthcare, losing connections to loved ones, and more.

Despite suffering these losses, people who live through internet shutdowns almost never get redress for harm during the disruptions. That is in part because the courts have not had a say.

In 2018, Access Now and our partners are working to change this dynamic, enlisting the judiciary to provide those impacted with remedy and increase accountability for the harm that shutdowns cause.

On January 19, Access Now and Internet Sans Frontieres intervened in a lawsuit challenging a government-ordered shutdown in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions last year. We are providing expert advice on requirements under international human rights law and urging the court to end the shutdowns for good.

“Cameroon’s courts have the opportunity to set a global precedent in favor of human rights and the rule of law,” said Peter Micek, General Counsel of Access Now. “By declaring the government’s shutdown order a discriminatory, unnecessary, and disproportionate decree, issued under flawed procedures, the court can provide remedy to Cameroonians and light a path for victims of shutdowns elsewhere.”

“A decision by Cameroon’s Constitutional Council to reaffirm the protection of Human Rights, and rule on the illegality of shutdowns, would send a historic and powerful signal to other countries of the Central Africa region. Between 2016 and 2017, all countries of the region illegally used internet shutdowns for political reasons,” added Julie Owono, Executive Director of Internet San Frontieres.

Although there are two lawsuits underway, they are proceeding separately; we are intervening as a “friend of the court” (amicus) in the case, Registration No. 439, that is before the Constitutional Council, as domestic procedures for Judicial Review cases do not allow amicus briefs.

Unfortunately, the courts have not moved quickly to date, delaying hearings and otherwise slowing down the legal process — including a delay at one point due to a court losing file papers. We hope that our brief will spur activity on these cases.

The lawsuits

On April 17 and April 20, 2017, Cameroon’s Veritas Law Offices, in collaboration with the Media Legal Defence Initiative, instituted two separate court actions challenging the internet shutdown in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon. The respondents include the State of Cameroon, Cameroon Telecommunications (CAMTEL), the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, and several telecommunications companies in the country.

The lawsuits demand that the government turn the internet back on, and keep it on, in Cameroon. They also ask the court to find that the shutdown in the Southwest and Northwest Regions of Cameroon violates the Anglophone plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression and access to information; that it violates the constitutional provisions prohibiting discrimination based on language; and that costs of the lawsuit be paid for by the respondents.

The actions seek remedy for the shutdown that began January 17, 2017, and ended just after the lawsuits were filed, around April 20, 2017. We do not know exactly why the government decided to turn the internet back on, but the timing, just after the lawsuits were filed, merits investigation.

Submission by Access Now & ISF

To inform the court on the international human rights law applicable to the case, Access Now and Internet Sans Frontieres jointly submitted a brief.  

Our submission notes, “The preamble of the Cameroonian Constitution explicitly commits the government to respect regional and international frameworks that support human rights, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Charter.” Cameroon has signed onto the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), both of which protect rights directly infringed by Cameroon’s shutdowns.

We also draw attention to several African declarations, conventions, and rulings protecting expression in Cameroon. Within the African Union, the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, encompassing the freedom to receive, express, and disseminate opinions and information. In November 2016, the African Commission adopted a resolution expressing concern over “the emerging practice of State Parties of interrupting or limiting access to telecommunication services such as the Internet, social media and messaging services, increasingly during elections.”

Our brief shows how the shutdown order and its implementation violated all three parts of the established test for restrictions on freedom of expression under the ICCPR, as well as Art. 9 of the African Charter. Economic, social, and cultural rights protected by the ICESCR also suffered disproportionate and unnecessary harm due to the disruption.