22.01.2019 06:42 Age: 93 days
Category: Media Matters
By: David Makoni
Why internet shutdowns are an even greater disservice.
Zimbabwe went through an internet shutdown last week and the incident has drawn criticism from many freedom of speech and expression lobbyists, including the country’s division of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Zimbabwe).
#KeepItOn Campaign- a movement against internet shutdowns in Africa- recorded 21 shutdowns across the continent last year (34 since the beginning of 2017), and this was the most recent in what is becoming a theme across the continent.
So what exactly does an internet shutdown mean for any country, beyond the failed text messages on WhatsApp?
Human rights violation
A major reason for global sympathy towards the shutdown in Zimbabwe has stemmed from the fact that people should and must be able to express themselves freely, through speech or otherwise.
Speech, in the modern world, has transcended the traditional medium and space, and is now equally voiced through numerous channels including social media applications that require connection to the internet.
The “voice” on social media could, indeed, have greater impact than the actual voice, and, coupled with the potential “reach” through mutual contacts that this social media phenomenon provides, there could be no matching the effect social media has and will have on all kinds of dialogue.
Shutting down the internet then, in essence, becomes equivalent to violation of the freedom of speech and expression that we advocate for. The importance of social media as a communication tool in Africa is highlighted by no-less-than 200 million people actively joining popular social media sites since 2012.
These astounding figures strengthen the idea that the internet should be more of a right than a privilege, as it has effectively become a way to initiate and advance dialogue*.
It’s not only human rights that are harmed…
The economy is heavily intertwined with the internet today. Any disturbance on the internet’s smooth-functioning inevitably affects the economy negatively as well. This includes the service providers who are denied of their primary livelihood- keeping people connected.
Numerous internet based transactions (e-commerce) are seriously obstructed while online trading, together with tax accumulation, cease.
IFEX estimated that the shutdown in Zimbabwe would cost the country US$5,742, 421 per day in direct economic costs for everyday that the internet was shut down. For a country already struggling to restore the economy, this would pose as an undesirable (and preventable) setback.
Access to Information denied.
Pivotal to Access to Information (ATI) is the internet. The internet in itself is a global village simultaneously sharing information. ATI thrives through internet connection.
As such, some professions and organisations simply cannot perform their tasks without internet access. Shutdowns cut-off access to vital information on news reports and stories emanating from the other side-plots within a country.
Journalists cannot use multimedia content that they retrieve via the internet to verify and report on, because it is no longer accessible. Crucial pieces of information are hence lost and daily operating routines disrupted during blackouts.
The implications of Internet shutdowns run deeper than just the need for instant communication and how that is thwarted. They cripple the political, social and economic fabric of a country in the process, posing a ripple of other challenges in addition to the existing ones.