The Anglophone regions of the Central African nation of Cameroon are currently in their fourth month of an internet shutdown, the latest instance in a rising trend of leaderships using their citizen’s access to cyberspace as a tool of oppression and control. Last week the digital freedom NGO’s Access Now and Internet Sans Frontières (ISF) issued a lawsuit against the government, urging the nation to cease the shutdown. Since September 30th, access to social media and messaging apps has been blocked in English-speaking regions of Cameroon in an attempt to curb protests by Anglophones who feel marginalized and discriminated against the French-speaking government in political, economic and cultural spheres.
The Cameroonian administration has previously referred to the use of social media as a “new form of terrorism” that has created a “social panic” in the nation, thus justifying the act of frequently limiting the retrieval of data. Judith Nwana, a Cameroonian human rights activist, sees the government’s actions as “a way of stopping the world from seeing or hearing about the atrocities being committed and stopping information flow between groups planning peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience.”
Cameroon’s shutdown is part of a growing trend of leadership-imposed internet restrictions around the world. According to Access Now, all states in the Central African region illegally cancelled the Net between 2016 and 2017. The executive director of ISF, Julie Owono, believes that “governments that have been used to closed societies where information is centralized see connectivity as a threat rather than an opportunity,” citing this as the reason for a prevalence of shutdowns in the region. Indeed, even some outwardly democratic nations have resorted to politically motivated cyberspace limitations, like India banning Kashmiris from logging in to social networks, while Spain in 2017 blocked access to certain pages that shared details on the controversial Catalonian referendum.
An internet, in which social media and news sites are not open and accessible, severely stifles robust political discourse, limits the spread of information and denies citizens the right to free speech. This creates a society where individuals are disengaged from political discussion and have no way to convey their country’s oppression to the outside world. The restriction of data retrieval is a particularly insidious act by nations against its people, as there is little that individuals, private companies or the international community can do to restore access or deter states from taking such action. Access Now and ISF hope that Cameroonian’s Constitutional Council will respond to their lawsuit by declaring the government’s shutdown a denial of human rights and rule of law, thus setting a precedent in the region, sending “a historic and powerful signal to other countries in the Central African region.” Direct challenges such as this by NGOs, coupled with diplomacy and media coverage by other states, is perhaps the only way to deter leaderships from imposing internet restrictions against their people. It is hoped that eventually such efforts will create a climate in which citizen’s digital freedoms are appropriately respected and safeguarded by their own governments.