March 16, 2021
#KeepItOn: Open letter to keep the internet open and secure during elections in the Republic of the Congo
Re: Internet access will ensure increased participation and transparency in the Republic of the Congo’s presidential elections
Your Excellency Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of the Republic of Congo
CC: Leon juste Ibombo, Minister of Telecommunications; Louis-Marc Ervely Sakala, Director-General of Regulatory Agency for Posts and Electronic Communications (ARPCE); Raymond Zephirin Mboulou, Minister of Interior; Luc Missidimbazi, Post, Telecommunications and Digital Advisor to the Prime Minister of Congo; Moussa Ayham, Director General of MTN Congo; Alain Kahasha Ntumwa, Airtel Congo; Yves Castanou, Director General of Congo Telecom.
Nations across Africa, and the world, are intentionally shutting down the internet when people need it the most — during elections and important national events. This election, we urge the Republic of the Congo to #KeepItOn.
We, the undersigned organizations and members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network that unites over 240 organizations from 105 countries that work to end internet shutdowns* globally — write to urgently appeal to you, President Denis Sassou Nguesso, to ensure that the internet, social media platforms, and all other communication channels are open, secure, and accessible throughout the election period, scheduled for March 17 and 21, in the Republic of Congo and thereafter.
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, the media, and other relevant stakeholders count on the internet to monitor and report on elections, and this facilitates transparency, inclusivity, and openness in the process.
With a history of government-mandated internet shutdowns during important national events in the Republic of Congo, including during the last presidential election, the #KeepItOn coalition appeals to you, President Nguesso, to ensure that access to the internet and all digital communication platforms remain open and secure for the people of Congo during and in the aftermath of the 2021 elections.
The upcoming elections are an important moment for the Congolese people to elect their leader for the next presidential term, and it is essential for the government to adopt measures to ensure that the election process is free and fair. Internet shutdowns may instigate violence, and spur the spread of misinformation, as there are fewer reliable channels for fact-checking. This is a reason for concern considering encounters between government forces and militias in the aftermath of the last presidential election.
Internet shutdowns harm human rights, disrupt emergency services, and cripple economies
Research shows that internet shutdowns and violence go hand in hand. Shutting down the internet during a deadly pandemic would add fuel to the fire. Internet shutdowns violate fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and opinion, access to information, press freedom and freedom of peaceful assembly. By disrupting the free flow of information, shutdowns exacerbate any existing tensions in the society and increase the likelihood of protests, as well as the concealment of potential violence and human rights violations perpetrated by both state and non-state actors against people.
Internet shutdowns cut off access to vital, timely, and life-saving information, as well as to emergency services, plunging whole communities into fear and confusion.
Internet shutdowns contravene international human rights laws and standards
The Republic of Congo has ratified regional and international frameworks such as the legally-binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which provide for the protection and promotion of the rights of freedom of opinion and expression, assembly, and access to information, both offline and online.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Resolution from 2016 recognizes the “importance of the internet in advancing human and people’s rights in Africa, particularly the right to freedom of information and expression.” The ACHPR/Res. 362 (LIX) 2016 also condemns the “emerging practice of State Parties interrupting or limiting access to telecommunication services such as the internet, social media, and messaging services.” Research indicates that there is no evidence that shutdowns are effective at achieving a legitimate aim; if anything, by trying to achieve their ends, the government will often block their own channels of information. Additionally, U.N. experts and high-level officials —including the U.N. Secretary-General — formally affirm that blanket Internet shutdowns and generic blocking and filtering of services are considered by United Nations human rights mechanisms to never be justified under international human rights law.
Telecom companies must respect human rights
Telecom companies and businesses have a responsibility under the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises to respect human rights, prevent or mitigate potential harms, and provide remedy for harms they cause or contribute to. In the case of enterprises like Congo Telecom Limited with state investment, “states should take additional steps to protect against human rights abuses by business enterprises that are owned or controlled by the State.”
Moreover, telecom service providers operating in Congo including MTN Congo and Airtel Congo have a responsibility to uphold and respect human rights by providing quality, open, and secure access to the internet and digital communication tools throughout the elections and beyond. Internet shutdowns — whether in Congo or other countries — must never be allowed to become the new normal, and we encourage Congo enterprises to integrate these practices for responding to censorship and network disruption requests in all markets where you operate.
As organizations that believe in the power of the internet as an enabler of all other human rights, we are confident that access to the internet, social media, mobile money platforms during the elections in Congo has the potential to foster transparency around the upcoming elections and ensure active citizen and other stakeholder participation.
We respectfully request that you use the important positions of your offices to:
- Publicly assure the people of the Republic of the Congo that the internet, including social media and other digital communication platforms, will remain open, accessible, inclusive, and secure across Congo throughout the election and thereafter;
- Order internet service providers operating in the country to provide everyone with high-quality, secure, and unrestricted internet access throughout the election period and thereafter; and
- Order internet service providers operating in the country to inform internet users of any potential disruptions and to take all reasonable steps to fix any identified disruptions likely to impact the quality of service they receive.
Kindly let us know in what way we can assist in ensuring the same.
Advocacy Initiative for Development (AID)
African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms Coalition (AfDec)
African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX)
Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation (AODIRF)
Alliance républicaine pour le développement
Association for Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS)
Bareedo Platform Somalia
Bloggers of Zambia
Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD)
Centre for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP)
Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Digital Rights Coalition Malawi
Digital Woman Uganda
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
Friends of Angola (FoA)
Front Line Defenders
Internet Sans Frontières
International Press Centre (IPC)
Gambia Press Union (GPU)
Liberia Information Technology Student Union
Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)
Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe (MISA Zimbabwe)
Open Net Association (Korea)
Organization of the Justice Campaign
RAS-LE-BOL (Citizen movement Congo-Brazzaville)
Right 2 Know campaign
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Securing Organizations through Automated Policymaking (SOAP)
Unwanted Witness Uganda
Wikimedia Community User Group Uganda
Women ICT Advocacy Group (WIAG)
Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET)
*An internet shutdown is defined as an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information. See more at: https://www.accessnow.org/keepiton.