Chad: Internet shutdowns impeding freedom of expression
Nearly 2.5 years in total of internet cuts or disruptions since 2016
WhatsApp and Facebook most targeted social networks
Activists and human rights defenders impacted by cuts and disruptions
Chadian authorities have stepped up restrictions on civic space in recent months with long internet shutdowns, arbitrary arrests, and violations of freedoms of protest and peaceful assembly, Amnesty International said ahead of the 11 April presidential election.
Over the past five years, authorities have deliberately restricted the internet during mobilisations organized by dissenting voices. This has accumulated to almost two and half years of internet cuts or disruptions since 2016, according to several organisations.
We have seen in the last five years, a close link between internet cuts and Chad’s important moments of political dispute. These disruptions impacting all internet users undermine freedom of expression.
« We have seen in the last five years, a close link between internet cuts and Chad’s important moments of political dispute. These disruptions impacting all internet users undermine freedom of expression, » said Abdoulaye Diarra, Amnesty International’s Central Africa researcher.
« Given the political, economic and social context that Chad is facing, authorities should refrain from blocking access to the internet and ensure the right to freedom of opinion and expression before, during and after the presidential election.”
Regular internet disruptions since 2016
Organizations like Netblocks, Internet Sans Frontières and Access Now have reported a combined figure of 911 days of internet disruptions between the last presidential election in 2016 and 2021. These figures include days Chadians spent without internet and those they spent with restrictions on access to some social networks.
Internet access, phone calls and phone text messages were again disrupted for two weeks in the last two months. In 2020 alone, the country experienced 192 days of internet disruptions.
Human rights activists told Amnesty International that most of the restrictions took place during politically sensitive moments, such as the 2016 presidential election, demonstrations in support of dissenting voices, and the national forum for institutional reforms organized in November 2020 by the authorities.
“During the 2016 presidential election, authorities took isolation measures and censorship to prevent opposition candidates from discussing between them the way the ballots were conducted,” one human rights activist, based in the capital N’Djamena, told Amnesty International.
In July 2020, access to social media was restricted following the killing of a young mechanic in N’Djamena market by an army officer. In February 2021, it was restricted again during a raid by security forces on the house of an opposition presidential candidate who had refused to respond to a judicial summons. WhatsApp and Facebook are the most targeted social networks according to an activist.
Activists prevented from speaking out against human rights violations
The restrictions of the internet and access to social media networks are taking place in a context of increasing use of social networks by the population, who want to stay informed on the news in the country.
Human rights activists told Amnesty International that internet restrictions have seriously impeded their ability to expose human rights violations and peacefully mobilize action in protest against them. They also limit the visibility of their actions via the internet.
‘’ The government is accountable for these internet cuts which impact my activities as an activist. Using the internet is the only way we can inform national and international opinion of the government’s actions," another activist said.
A member of a civil society organisation told Amnesty International that the persistent internet cuts have a severe impact on youths who use social networks as their main information channels. "That’s why when the internet is cut, few people are able to respond to calls for protests," he added.
The authorities have regularly cited internal security and the maintenance of public order as reasons to justify shutting down the internet. In March 2018, they justified the internet restriction for security reasons and the context of ‘’ terrorist threats’’. New restrictions again took place in July 2020 and authorities claimed they were temporary measures to limit the spreading of hate messages and division.
One user said that many Chadians use the internet for online sale, and the cuts have social and financial repercussions on them. According to figures documented by several organisations, the restrictions on access to internet cost the country 23 million USD between July and December 2020.
Violation of international law
Since August 2018, several organisations in Chad have taken initiatives to fight against internet restrictions and cuts. They have set up a pool of lawyers and lodged a complaint against the two local mobile operators, Airtel and Tigo, for blocking access to social media networks. In October 2020, a court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that it was "unfounded".
In a 27 June 2016 resolution, the UN Human Rights Council stated that measures aimed at preventing or deliberately disrupting access to information or the dissemination of information online are an international human rights law violation. It called on all states to refrain from and end such practices.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa also said cuts to the internet and social media violate the rights to freedom of expression and access to information. In a 29 January 2019 statement, he added that citizens should not be penalized by internet cuts when demonstrating, calling for political and economic reforms or during electoral processes or ballots.
Repression of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly
Amnesty International documented numerous attacks on freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly over the past year in Chad.
On 6 February 2021, several opposition members, unemployed youths, and human rights defenders who wanted to organize a protest on the country’s economic, social, and political situation were arrested. The protest was banned. Some of them were sentenced while others given suspended sentences.
In December 2020, a human rights defender was arrested and taken into custody after being invited by a private radio station to comment on the ban of a civil society forum on institutional reforms that was a direct response to one organized a month earlier by the government.
Access to the internet is indissociable from freedom of expression. The Chadian authorities should guarantee to all their fundamental rights in accordance with international law and the country’s laws.
During his interview, the police stormed the radio premises and arrested several people including journalists who were there at the same time for training. The journalists were released hours after their arrest.
“Access to the internet is indissociable from freedom of expression. The Chadian authorities should guarantee to all their fundamental rights in accordance with international law and the country’s laws,” said Abdoulaye Diarra.