South Africa

DM168 AFRO DISPATCHES: Cellular signals: Dismay over possibility of internet blackout during Zambia’s August general election

From left: President of Zambia Edgar Lungu. (Photo: EPA-EFE / HARISH TYAGI) | United Party for National Development leader Hakainde Hichilema. (Photo: EPA / STR)

Cellular providers MTN and Airtel cannot promise that they won’t shut down services during the Zambian elections.

Zambia’s main opposition party is disappointed that the country’s two biggest cellular companies – MTN and Airtel – cannot guarantee that they will not shut down internet access over the 12 August general election.

Opposition parties and civil society widely expect President Edgar Lungu’s government to black out the internet and social media to prevent independent reporting, and monitoring of the results. Opposition parties say a blackout could frustrate their efforts to send final campaign messages, to inform their supporters of where and how to vote, and to report incidents of violence, intimidation and electoral irregularities on social media.

Governments also often block cellphone signals to stop opposition supporters from rallying in protest if they suspect the results have been rigged.

MTN told DM168 that the group and its subsidiaries, including MTN Zambia, respected digital human rights, including “the right to communicate, to share information freely and responsibly, and to enjoy privacy and security regarding their data and their use of digital communications”.

MTN said if the Zambian government ordered it to shut down its services during the elections, the company would have to consider the order in light of its digital human rights policy. But MTN did not say that it would not shut down its services or censor them. And the company confirmed that it had shut down in four other African countries recently during unrest.

“In all cases, restricting access to the internet is a last resort,” an MTN spokesperson said.

Lungu is facing a major challenge from Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND) who came close to beating him in the 2015 and 2016 presidential elections. UPND Secretary-General Batuke Imenda told DM168: “We are disappointed that MTN and Airtel, as Zambia’s two biggest telecommunications providers, will not guarantee to protect internet access ahead of the general election on 12 August and stand up against any attempts by the government to infringe [on] the digital rights of citizens.

“Combined access to data and internet connectivity is an essential requirement for a free, fair and credible election. There is a distinct possibility that the government will instruct Zambia’s telecommunications companies to shut down the internet in an attempt to subvert the democratic will of the people. Any throttling of the internet, blocking of social media/instant messaging platforms and internet shutdowns will compromise the freedom and fairness of the election.

“Further, shutting down the internet is a violation of the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens being contrary to Article (20) of the Constitution of Zambia. The tactics to shut down the internet is dictatorial and a serious indictment on freedom of expression.

“These tactics deny voters access to information about the election, including where and how to vote. Importantly, the government of Zambia is also aimed at preventing election monitors [including observation missions] from communicating and carrying out independent monitoring of the voting and counting process.

“We call upon both MTN and Airtel to take a clear stance in support of human rights and democracy by declaring their opposition to any instruction to throttle or shut down the internet and block access to social media and instant-messaging platforms.

“They should furthermore indicate publicly what steps they will be taking to engage with government to pre-empt any unlawful instruction.”

In response to questions about how it would respond if the Zambian government instructed it to black out signal over the election period, MTN said: “MTN Group believes that everyone deserves the benefits of a modern connected life and our priority is always to provide customers with full access to our network.” MTN endorsed the United Nations (UN) stance “that the rights held by people offline must also be protected online”.

“Our response to digital human rights is underpinned by a sound group-wide policy and due diligence framework. In all cases, restricting access to the internet is a last resort. Should MTN Zambia receive an instruction to shut down the internet, we would first have to check the terms of our licence and ensure that we comply with our licence conditions.” MTN would review the directive against the group’s digital human rights policy and due diligence framework, guided by the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights framework.

MTN was engaging with stakeholders, including industry players and regulatory authorities, to assess the likelihood of a potential request for an internet shutdown, to identify “potential mitigations” and “manage any potential situation as effectively as possible.”

“As part of our due diligence framework, MTN works to limit the scope, extent, or duration of any human rights impacts.”

DM168 asked MTN if it would comply with a request by the Zambian authorities to censor text messages to remove the names of opposition candidates, as cellular companies did during the recent Tanzanian elections. MTN said it was “politically impartial in all its operations and does not subscribe to any political party, movement, or affiliation” but would evaluate such a request from either governmental or non-governmental bodies to see if the requests were legal. “Even as a major player in many markets, we cannot presume that we can influence these events upfront,” MTN said, adding that it recognised it had a role of “advocating globally for respect of digital human rights”.

Asked if it would consider pulling out of Zambia if asked to shut or censor its transmission, the company said it would do “a robust risk assessment before any decision is taken to exit a market”, taking into account numerous factors, including human rights and stakeholders’ perspectives.

“Many of the markets in which MTN operates have the lowest mobile penetration rates globally. Investing in these markets allows MTN to provide vital communications services, ensuring people have access to basic and emergency services and a means of sharing information and staying connected.

“MTN’s presence enables people to realise their basic human rights. Notwithstanding, the risk of human rights incidents in our countries of operation exists. Such risks are a factor of doing business in these markets and these are not strictly limited to MTN.”

DM168 asked MTN for examples where it had shut down or censored communications for governments and why this was done.

“In 2020, MTN received three major requests by authorities, legally permitted by applicable laws or by virtue of a court order, obliging MTN to block or suspend internet or social media services or websites.

“These were in Sudan, Guinea-Conakry and Nigeria, and these incidents took place during times of political or social unrest.

“As an example, in June 2020, Sudan experienced a month-long near-total internet shutdown due to unrest in the country. MTN Sudan followed the Group’s due diligence process, which included understanding the options available before making any decision to comply or reject the requests to shut down services. The process also considered the safety and security risks to employees, customers, and operations. MTN Sudan was commended by its customers for being one of the last operators to shut down and one of the first to reinstate services.

“In late June 2021, during social unrest in Eswatini, MTN Eswatini received a directive from the communications regulator to shut down access to social media and online messaging platforms. After extensive engagements with all relevant stakeholders, MTN resumed the provision of full internet services nine days after complying with the directive.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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