Authorities in Kenya must immediately restore access and #KeepItOn throughout protests and unrest

Authorities in Kenya must immediately restore internet access and #KeepItOn throughout protests and unrest

Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition strongly condemn the ongoing disruption of internet access and increased crackdown on the people of Kenya amid protests.

Restricting access to the internet during protests is a flagrant violation of fundamental rights and a threat to people’s safety both online and off. The government of Kenya must take measures to ensure that access to the internet and essential communications platforms is guaranteed across the country in times of crisis. Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Campaign Manager at Access Now

On June 18, 2024, nationwide protests broke out in Kenya opposing the 2024 Finance Bill, which imposes heavy taxes on essential goods. Mobilizers called for peaceful protest today, June 25, as parliament passed the bill. Tensions have quickly escalated, and police have violently cracked down on protesters using water cannons, tear gas, and shooting live rounds into crowds. At approximately 3:00 pm local time, a group of protesters breached the parliament building in Nairobi and part of the building caught fire. At least five people have been reported dead, and emergency service providers have reported being unable to provide adequate medical assistance as the situation continues to escalate.

Shortly after, starting at approximately 4:00 pm local time on June 25, connectivity dropped nationwide by nearly 40% across at least 20 networks according to measurements from IODA and Cloudflare. Cloudflare reports impacts on major networks including Safaricom, Wananchi, and JTL (Jamii Telecommunications). Signal and X also saw an increase in anomalies in Kenya due to connectivity issues, mostly on Safaricom. Safaricom sent a customer notice claiming the disruptions to both internet services and the M-PESA electronic payment app are a result of “an outage on two of our under sea cables.” Airtel issued a similar notice, indicating disruptions to undersea cables have impacted their services.

Neighboring countries Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, which all share upstream providers with Kenya, are also experiencing similar drops in connectivity.

The situation is evolving rapidly and #KeepItOn coalition members are continuing to investigate these ongoing disruptions and the technical means by which they have been implemented. However, the targeted nature of the disruptions, happening at the height of protest activity in Kenya and impacting Kenya’s largest networks, strongly suggests disruptions are being imposed intentionally. At the time of publishing, connectivity has continued to worsen since disruptions began.

Authorities and telecoms providers alike should be doing everything in their power to ensure open, secure, and reliable access to mobile networks, online communications platforms, mobile payment apps, and other essential services during moments of heightened tension. Instead, we are seeing the opposite, despite prior commitments to uphold free expression and access to information. Naro Omo-Osagie, Africa Policy and Advocacy Manager at Access Now

On June 24, 2024, the Communication Authority issued a press release on its X account, assuring Kenyans and the general public that it had no intention of shutting down the internet or interfering with the quality of connectivity following rising concerns that a shutdown was under consideration.

These disruptions are a major step backward for Kenya, which has previously been an important stronghold against shutdowns in the region. Kenya imposed its first internet shutdown in November 2023 when authorities blocked Telegram during national exams. Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition reached out to authorities demanding clarification on why Telegram was blocked and asking the government to immediately restore access. Previously in 2022, we warned that authorities in Kenya were exploring the possibility of platform blocking in a disproportionate response to misinformation around the 2022 elections.

President Ruto’s regime has severally underscored the importance of the internet as an enabler for development through their policies including by prioritizing “the Digital Super Highway as a key driver for the country’s transformation, creation of jobs and growth,” and committing to launch 25,000 WiFi hotspots countrywide. The situation today is not reflective of these commitments. Kenya is also a member of the Freedom Online Coalition – a coalition of 39 governments that have taken joint positions and repeated actions against internet shutdowns around the world.

Kenya’s constitution guarantees the right to peaceful protest and free expression. Likewise, disruptions to internet access and communications platforms are recognized by the United Nations human rights mechanisms as a violation of international human rights law. 

Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition call on the government of Kenya and telecom service providers to immediately restore full access, refrain from any further disruption to connectivity, and commit to upholding human rights as Kenyans exercise their rights online and offline. Authorities must actively work to strengthen connectivity throughout the protest period to ensure people’s safety, right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and access to essential services and communications channels.