#FreeSenegal: ‘Our people are literally suffering!’ due to intermittent internet shutdowns

Omoleye Omoruyi
Senegal blocks internet access again

Technext had earlier reported that social media had been restricted following the arrest of opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, who was sentenced to two years imprisonment, and a tweet from PASTEF (Patriotes Africains du Sénégal Pour le Travail, l’Éthique et la Fraternité), asking all Senegalese citizens to hit the streets and reject the verdict.

But the restriction was not only for social media.

The Ministry of Communication, Telecommunications and the Digital Economy informs that due to the dissemination of hateful and subversive messages in a context of disturbance of public order in certain localities of the national territory, the Internet of mobile data is temporarily suspended during certain time slots. Telephone operators are required to comply with notified requisitions.

The Minister said in a Communique
Internet shutdown in Senegal

But, Senegal nationals won’t relent, notwithstanding an attempt to stifle communication through the internet. And, following a violent clash between supporters of Sonko and the police, the government has reported the death of 15 people while the opposition says 19 people have died.

In other reports, the capital, Dakar, experienced the continuation of violent protests in the evening on Saturday, June 3, as protesters threw rocks at police, barricaded roads and burned tyres. The army advanced while police threw tear gas at protesters and detained some of them. So, it is unclear how many people have died.

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Background of recent protests

I call upon all the people to remain mobilised and stand up against the dictatorship of Macky Sall. Let constitutional resistance intensify everywhere in order to regain our democracy. Let us rise up and confront Macky Sall and his henchmen,” Ousmane Sonko wrote on Twitter.

It happened on Thursday, May 30, that Sonko was convicted of corrupting youth, and acquitted on charges of raping a woman who worked at a massage parlour and threatening her after. Sonko was tried in absentia and sentenced to two years imprisonment.

Corrupting young people, which includes using one’s position of power to have sex with people under the age of 21, is a criminal offence in Senegal, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $6,000.

Trial of Ousmane Sonko
Senegalese police and gendarmes are seen at the entrance to the Dakar courthouse where the trial of Ousmane Sonko was held on June 1. SEYLLOU/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Notwithstanding, Ousmane Sonko, 48, is popular with the country’s youth, and his supporters maintain his legal troubles are part of a government effort to derail his candidacy (as with other opposition) in the 2024 presidential election, where President Macky Sall is expected to contest for a third term.

Protests flared in Dakar, Senegal, after the verdict, which could prohibit Sonko from running in the country’s election next year.

Ousmane Sonko
Ousmane Sonko

Senegal’s constitution was revised in 2016 to shorten presidential terms to five years from seven. It states that “no one can exercise more than two consecutive terms“. The opposition has repeatedly alleged that Sall intends to override the constitution to run again.

In an interview with French magazine, L’Express, Sall argued that when the Constitutional Council was consulted before the revision, it considered his first term to be outside the scope of the reform.

Legally speaking, the debate has been settled for a long time,” he said in the interview. “Now, should I run for a third term or not? It’s a political debate, I admit it.”

Sall continued: “I have not yet given my answer. I have an agenda, a job to do. When the time comes, I will make my position known, first to my supporters, then to the Senegalese people.”

Sall was elected in 2012, when the presidential term was seven years, and re-elected in 2019 when the term was reduced to five years.

The ‘reason’ for the internet shutdown

“…due to the dissemination of hateful and subversive messages in a context of disturbance of public order in certain localities of the national territory.”

A Communique released June 4 by the Ministry of Communications, Digital Economy and Telecommunications

Authorities in Senegal partially shut down the internet on May 30, as protests rocked the country.

Having noted the dissemination of hateful and subversive messages on social networks, the State of Senegal, in all sovereignty, has decided to temporarily suspend the use of certain digital applications through which calls for violence and hatred are made,” the country’s Interior Minister, Antoine Diome said.

Read also: 5 African countries pledged to uphold free internet in 2021 but broke that promise

At a news conference on Saturday evening, the government said it would take all necessary measures to secure the country.

I would like to reassure the Senegalese people that whatever attacks we have, the state will face them,” Diome said. “Around 500 people have been arrested across the country, including those belonging to political parties as well as those who are just trying to scare people,” he said.

Diome added that public infrastructure had been destroyed due to the riots.

We have noted, with regret, violence that has led to the destruction of public and private property and, unfortunately, nine deaths in Dakar and Ziguinchor,” he said.

The Senegal government made the internet shutdown official on June 4.

Government websites, including “numerique.gouv.sn” have failed to open to fully understand the reason for the internet shutdown beyond the Communique. But, this is not the first time.

On the morning of Friday, March 5, 2021, network data from NetBlocks, an organisation that monitors internet and social network access, revealed a mobile internet disruption at the major phone companies Orange and Sonatel in Senegal.

Metrics show that Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, and some Telegram servers were restricted on leading cellular network operator Orange/Sonatel as of early morning Friday. Affected services have subsequently been restored from 7:30 a.m. UTC,” NetBlocks wrote.

The broadcasting regulatory authority, the Conseil National de Régulation de l’Audiovisuel (CNRA) suspended two private television channels, WALF TV and SEN TV, from March 4, for three days on account of their broadcasting a loop of violent images.

These two media houses were accused by the CNRA of stirring up violence. The CNRA had also warned two other private channels against broadcasting content that “explicitly or implicitly promotes violence”, incites disturbances of public order, or “is likely to constitute a threat to national stability or social cohesion”.

Earlier, on March 3, 2021, demonstrations broke out in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and in several other major cities in the country including Kaolack, Saint Louis, and Casamance. Demonstrations persisted on March 4. The protests resulted from the arrest of Sonko, a deputy in the National Assembly and third in the 2019 presidential elections.

When he was arrested in 2021, several days of clashes left at least 12 people dead.

When an internet shutdown happens

The recent internet restrictions in Senegal are surprising given that the country is seen as one of the region’s more stable democracies.

Isik Mater, Director of Research at NetBlocks, told Techradar.

I can confirm that we’re having huge problems with communication channels and information sharing. Since 3/4 June we’ve been using VPNs to access networks such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc.

This is done voluntarily with a view to censoring information, because the print and TV press is corrupt for the most part, and for the few that aren’t, the regulatory authority blocks their signal.

The people are literally suffering! On the evening of Thursday, June 1, 2023, the Minister of the Interior announced on national TV that the Internet (social networks) was blocked. 4G is also blocked from time to time on the various operators and the internet connection only goes through Wifi despite VPNs,” A Senegal national wrote to Technext.

#FreeSenegal is the hashtag used to send the word about the situation in the country, but social media users have to use VPNs not yet blocked by the government.

Meanwhile, in a report by Impakter, “Internet shutdowns can cause millions of dollars in damage to a national economy by preventing people and companies from conducting any online business and disrupting online banking systems.”

Top10VPN, an independent VPN review website that champions internet privacy, security and freedom, in a tracker report says that Senegal has lost $16.7 million from internet shutdowns, affecting 8.01 million Internet users.

The Internet is a news and information conduit and is a fundamental human right. A shutdown is an infringement on that right and can threaten democracy. Besides, it can be used to quell the violent protests that have plagued the country once acclaimed to be the beacon of peace and stability in Africa.

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