Sudan, Bangladesh, DRC, Gabon start 2019 with major digital rights violations

As the world celebrated 2019,  Sudan, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Gabon shut down the internet, throttled services, and blocked social media, violating their peoples’ rights.

In response to the situation in DRC, U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye explained, “A general network shutdown is in clear violation of international law and cannot be justified by any means.” Particularly during elections and other periods of heightened tensions, “[s]hutdowns are damaging not only for people’s access to information, but also for their access to basic services,” said Kaye.

Here is what happened while you were away:

What happened in Sudan?

For the past three weeks, Sudan has been rocked by massive protests across the country. What seemed to have started in the capital Khartoum over soaring food prices and high inflation rates has now gripped other cities like Omdurman. In response to these countrywide protests, the government called its own counter demonstrations, and the president during multiple televised statements vowed to increase civil servants’ salaries, control inflation, and stem the economic crisis.  

Within the last three decades, many things have unfolded in Sudan. For instance, the southern part of Sudan seceded, taking with it much of the oil reserve and becoming the youngest country in the world; the protracted conflicts in Darfur have left many dead and refugees without a home; the United States imposed sanctions in 1997, which were only partially lifted in 2017; the International Criminal Court indicted the president of Sudan for crimes committed in Darfur; and last but not least, the Sudanese government has been responsible for countless human rights violations over the past three decades.  The only thing that has stayed the same for the past 30 years is the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir.

As the recent protests engulfed the whole country, the Sudanese government continued to perpetuate its old tactics of arbitrary detention and arrest, extrajudicial killings, assault, excessive use of force, and many more violations against activists, journalists, worker unions, and ordinary citizens. In an effort to hide these and many other human rights violations, the Sudanese government ordered telecom service providers to block access to social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter. These blocks were in effect between December 20-28, 2018, and seem to have been lifted on all telecoms except Zain.

But tensions in the country continue to intensify, and police violence against protesters is reaching new heights. Sudan has a history of resorting to internet shutdowns during periods of unrest, including during anti-government protests in 2013, and the international community must remain vigilant as this situation moves forward.

What happened in Bangladesh?

Bangladesh held its parliamentary elections on December 30, and this was no ordinary election. It was marred with irregularities, violence, and internet shutdowns. Three days before the elections, the Bangladeshi government blocked Facebook and other social media platforms, and a day before suspended 4G and 3G mobile data services.

Amidst the throttling and restrictions, the electoral commission announced that Prime Minister Ms. Sheikh Hasina’s ruling party, the Awami League, won 288 of the 298 parliamentary seats while opposition parties have cried foul.  

This is not the first time Bangladesh cut access to the internet in 2018. Just a few months before, the government slowed internet connection down during student protests, blocked Skype, and censored major news sites in the name of fighting fake news and misinformation. In the same period, the Jatiya Sangsad (Parliament of Bangladesh) passed a Digital Security Act that threatens freedom of expression in the country.

What happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo?  

In the wee hours of January 10, 2019, the Independent National Election Commission of DRC (Commission Électorale Nationale Indépendante or CENI) announced that the opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi won the presidential election in one of the biggest countries in Africa. Although we are yet to see if the president-elect will be sworn in, this is indeed a surprise to many.

The long-awaited elections, held on December 30, were marred by election irregularities, protests, and a range of human rights violations. Just after the polls closed on December 31, the government introduced a nationwide SMS and internet shutdown which is still in effect at the time of this publication.

Building on a history of intentional network disruptions, including internet shutdowns in January and February 2018 during protests, this most recent shutdown was particularly dangerous. The lack of internet and SMS services is making the work of health service providers in the DRC even more difficult as they combat an Ebola outbreak in parts of the country. Moreover, this is the first internet shutdown that we have come across that has also affected community networks: the orders were to shut down targeted mesh and community networks in addition to telecom service companies.

What happened in Gabon?

For over 50 years, Gabon, with a population of just two million, has been ruled by the Bongo family. When Albert-Bernard Bongo passed away in 2009, his son, Ali Bongo, a struggling musician,  was named president in an election boycotted by opposition parties. President Bongo has not been seen in public since he suffered a stroke back in October 2017 and currently resides in Morocco.

In the early morning of January 7, soldiers took over  TV and radio stations in Libreville and announced their seizure of power to restore democracy in Gabon. In less than 24 hours, the coup attempt was deterred, and a few of the soldiers that took part were killed. As the coup attempt was underway, internet connection on all telecom service providers was disconnected.

The Bongo family’s 50-year rule in Gabon is marked by many election fraud and human rights violations including torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention, and a lack of freedom of the press, alongside internet shutdowns. During a contested election in 2016, Gabon shut down the internet for four days and later introduced a 12-hour internet curfew.

What can we do to help those affected?

The #KeepItOn coalition, with over 175 civil society organizations from 66 countries, has been working around the clock to identify, document, measure, and circumvent shutdowns.

It is evident that internet shutdowns — whether used during protests as in Sudan or elections as in Bangladesh and DRC — will hide the smoke, but they never put out the fire for change.

It seems governments and proponents of censorship and shutdowns have outpaced the circumvention community. In situations like DRC and Gabon where the whole country is/was off the grid, there aren’t many things the community can do to get people back online unless we organize and provide alternative infrastructure before the shutdowns come into effect.

In a context like Sudan where social media apps are blocked, the digital security community can provide many customized services. For instance, one of the challenges other than the blocking of social media is accessing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that will work in Sudan. Due to the previous U.S. sanctions against Sudan, many based in the country are unable to download VPNs from the App Store and Google Play store.

Even when people in Sudan can access a VPN and log in on Twitter, Twitter locks them out of their account “due to suspicious activity,” and they are unable to verify their account with two-factor authentication because Twitter accounts cannot be verified with a Sudanese phone number. At the moment, our partners in Sudan are seeing the most success with the VPN service Psiphon, available for Android, iOS, and Windows (guide also available in Arabic here).

In situations like Bangladesh where throttling has become the modus operandi, it is essential that the tech community further examines the mechanisms of how throttling is implemented to empower those impacted with more effective tools for circumvention.

The #KeepItOn coalition also works at all levels to pressure governments to refrain from shutting down the internet, to bring legal challenges to shutdowns in national and international bodies, and to raise awareness about the impact of internet shutdowns around the world. If you have experienced an internet shutdown, you can help us to wage this fight by sharing your story. Personal accounts help provide the evidence we need to win in court and to tell a more complete story of the human impact of network disruptions.

Finally, the internet shutdown measurement community is working to expand our capacity to detect and analyze network disruptions as they happen, helping to both establish evidence of human rights violations and to deploy rapid response assistance to those affected by the block.

You can help #KeepitOn members Netblocks and OONI map and measure the latest internet and telecom restrictions by running tests on your network. However, these tests require turning VPNs off and entail potential risks. For example, anyone monitoring your internet activity (e.g. ISP, government, employer) would be able to see that you are running OONI Probe or Netblocks scans. If you decide to run these tests, we would recommend reading more about potential risks, closing all your browser tabs and other applications before turning your VPN off, and turning your VPN back on as soon as the probe tests are complete.

For Netblocks, you can run a scan by clicking on this link. This technique was devised as an alternative to hardware probes. The traffic profile is similar to a regular news website with social media sharing buttons.

For OONI, you can run OONI Probe on Linux, MacOS, or on a Raspberry Pi, or install the OONI probe app on your mobile and add specific websites to OONI run.