The Central African country of Chad last week marked one year of an ongoing social media blackout, the longest yet on the continent. The absence of sufficient international pressure likely will allow the shutdown to persist.
Major telecom companies Tigo and Airtel last year confirmed they blocked access to sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Viber following an order by the government of President Idriss Deby. Digital activists first reported the shutdown on Thursday. The same month, the Chadian government approved constitutional changes that allow the 66-year-old leader to remain in power until 2033. Deby has ruled the country since 1990.
Deby’s government persistently cracks down on any expressions of dissatisfaction with politics or the economy in the country. In 2016, after a controversial electoral victory, the government similarly shut down the internet for eight months.
Some Chadians are pushing back. In August, a group of lawyers lost their case against the telecommunication companies. They also lost an appeal last month after a Chadian court backed the shutdown for “security reasons.” On March 12, the Africa Freedom of Expression Exchange sent a letter signed by 80 international groups urging the African Union and the United Nations to take action against the social media ban.
Other African governments have engaged in digital blackouts to repress criticism. Cameroon intermittently blocked internet access for 230 days in 2017 and 2018 amid separatist unrest in the country’s English-speaking region. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe took similar measures.
“In the absence of a clear framework governing the right to internet access, African governments will maintain their responsibility to protect the public order or to curb ‘fake news,’” explained EXX Africa, a business risk intelligence group.
Some Chadians have succeeded in using virtual private networks to bypass the shutdown. But Salim Azim, co-founder of the tech group WenakLabs in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, told Quartz that business owners who use WhatsApp and other online platforms to market and sell their goods are especially struggling with the blackout.
“We don’t need a country that’s stuck in the past,” he said. “We need a developed country, and we need the government to solve this issue.”
But the Chadian government will not bend without international pressure, Samuel Woodhams, a researcher at the digital rights group Top10VPN, wrote for the site African Arguments: “One year in, the government has shown few signs of backing down and—amid silence from its Western partners—continues to curb its citizens’ ability to communicate with one another, voice their criticisms, and connect with the outside world.”