Across Africa, journalists increasingly must navigate internet shutdowns

Oct 10, 2023 in Press Freedom
Red sign with the @ symbol and the word Internet on it.

During crises, African governments have increasingly shut down or restricted citizens’ access to the internet and social media. Since 2015, countries on the continent have experienced over 100 social media shutdowns, partial internet shutdowns or full internet blackouts, according to Surfshark, which tracks government-imposed network connection disruptions and social media restrictions. From 2020 to 2021, Africa was the most censored region in the world.  

In April, for example, Sudan imposed a near-total internet blackout amid fighting between the Sudan Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. This is the 12th recorded internet disruption in Sudan since 2015, and the most in any African country alongside Ethiopia.

In Ethiopia, authorities have also repeatedly shut off access to the internet, including in the Tigray region during the conflict. These shutdowns have enabled governments to conceal human rights abuses and detention of journalists, activists say.

As a result of these shutdowns, many Africans, including journalists, can have little to no access to information online.

"Lack of internet connectivity can have far-reaching and potentially devastating consequences for ordinary citizens, who cannot communicate with loved ones or report the situation to the outside world. This leaves them isolated and vulnerable in a time of crisis," said Gabrielė Račaitytė-Krasauskė, head of communications at Surfshark, in a statement.

Here’s how these shutdowns are affecting journalists’ work: 

Censorship and a lack of safety

Limiting internet access hinders the ability of journalists to reach their audiences, as many news outlets exist predominantly online. While some African governments claim that these restrictions help maintain security and combat the spread of mis- and disinformation, journalists say these shutdowns are in fact meant to restrict the flow of information.

“Internet shutdowns violate the freedom of expression and cripple the ability of newsrooms to work. They are an affront to press freedom and media freedoms in general,” said Mujuni Raymond, a Ugandan investigative journalist and an editor at The Nation Media Group.

Internet restrictions prevent journalists from reporting and conducting investigations. “[Internet shutdowns] affect [journalists’] capacity to research, collaborate and deliver factual information to their audiences – most importantly, in elections where that information is needed the most,” said Raymond.

These disruptions can also expose reporters and their sources to danger as they turn to less secure methods of communication, added Raymond: “When the internet is cut, journalists have to resort to the use of phone calls, which are mostly insecure and affect [their] ability to do investigative stories that would require a lot of private and secure communication."

Navigating internet shutdowns

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a primary tool journalists use to evade internet shutdowns. During a seven month ban of X (formerly Twitter) in 2022 in Nigeria, investigative journalist Kabir Adejumo used VPNs to access social media and other online resources, for instance.

“It was sad for me as a journalist because I relied on [X] for critical social and political discourse. I had to switch to the use of a VPN to access the site,” Adejumo said. But doing so incurred risks. “Even [after switching to VPNs], Abubakar Malami, the [then]-attorney general of the Federation, threatened to prosecute those violating the ban,” he said.

Still, VPNs are not a perfect solution. “VPNs drain batteries and data at times but it was what I used to follow up on sources,” said Joseph Olaoluwa, a senior reporter at TechCabal. “Sadly, the [X] shutdown forced many people, brands and businesses off [of X and] onto alternate social media platforms. So I had to look for them there.” 

Staying informed

As journalists strive to produce accurate reporting and maintain open channels of communication in the face of internet shutdowns, it is essential that they stay informed and safeguard their digital presence.

“Press freedom is absolutely integral for democracy everywhere. Journalists censored in whatever way, whether jailed or killed or attacked or having their reporting electronically censored, hinders society’s ability to make informed decisions,” said Jonathan Rozen, a senior Africa researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

For journalists facing such disruptions, resources and strategies are available to help mitigate their impact. Organizations like CPJ and Reporters Without Borders offer support, guidance and advocacy. Additionally, digital security tools and training, such as those provided by organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, can help journalists protect their online activities and sources.

By staying informed, utilizing available resources and adapting, journalists can continue to shed light on important stories and ensure that information flows freely, even in the face of restrictions.

Photo by Leon Seibert on Unsplash.