Talks on internet restrictions continue to dominate social media platforms in Kenya as the country heads to a general election in about a week.
While the government insists that it will not shut down the internet in the elections slated for August 9, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) sparked a storm last Friday after threatening to recommend the suspension of the social media giant, Facebook, to tame hate speech ahead of the polls.
NCIC claims Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has failed to improve content moderation on hate speech, despite concerns from various quarters.
NCIC Commissioner Danvas Makori stated that Facebook had failed to implement the regulations suggested by the commission and also refused to publish peace messages published by the entity.
"We are a Government agency. We have been trying to push peace messages on Facebook but Facebook has been suppressing them. We have been unable to fight hate speech online because Facebook has refused to allow us to publish these messages," he said.
The commission gave Facebook seven days to adhere to the recommendations or face suspension.
But Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i and his ICT counterpart Joe Mucheru denied any plot to block Facebook or the internet in the country.
“The position of the government is very clear, we will respect the Constitution, respect all the rights of our people. We will not intrude or interfere with the freedoms of our people,” CS Matiang'i said in Kisii County.
Mucheru had earlier dismissed the threats by NCIC, insisting that “media, including social media, will continue to enjoy press freedom in Kenya”.
"Not clear what legal framework NCIC plans to use to suspend Facebook. Govt is on record. We are NOT shutting down the Internet," Mucheru added.
Media, including social media, will continue to enjoy PRESS FREEDOM in Kenya. Not clear what legal framework NCIC plans to use to suspend Facebook. Govt is on record. We are NOT shutting down the Internet @NCIC_Kenya @citizentvkenya @Meta @MediaCouncilK @KenyaEditors @Reuters pic.twitter.com/d2ddKsKR4E— CS Joe Mucheru EGH (@mucheru) July 30, 2022
While the internet has over time proved to be a game changer, particularly, in enabling social-economic development, some countries are keen to regulate it for different reasons.
Some countries where cases of internet shutdowns and restrictions have been reported during polls, attribute the disruptions to a number of reasons including an attempt to prevent the spread of hate speech and misinformation, protect national security and restore public order.
On the other hand, human rights groups insist the shutdowns are ordered as a tactic to suppress freedom of speech and to interfere with the right to freedom of assembly and association, ostensibly to block national protests and demonstrations.
Some of the leaders behind the recent shutdowns have been accused of a deliberate attempt to cling to power or install somewhat favourable regimes.
Internet shutdown in Uganda
Internet restrictions were reported in Uganda in the general elections conducted on January 14, 2021.
During the election period, access to social media was restricted in the neighbouring country while on some days, there was a complete shutdown of the internet.
Access to most of the social media platforms was later restored, with the exception of Facebook.
In interviews with the media, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni accused the social media giant of bias.
Museveni spoke after Facebook shut down several accounts it said were linked to the Ugandan authorities.
In a statement, Facebook said a network linked with the ministry of information had been using fake and duplicate accounts to impersonate users in an attempt to boost the reach of their posts.
"We found this network to be linked to the government Citizens Interaction Center at the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology in Uganda," Facebook said in a statement.
"They used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people's content, impersonate users, re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular than they were."
To access Facebook, users had to install Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) on their computers.
“Ever since Facebook went, have you heard of any shortage of sugar in town? Do you not have clothes? Facebook will talk but we shall move, they are not God,” Museveni defended the government over the Facebook ban.
“This is the reason why in some countries they are not allowed, do they operate in China? Anyway, what I heard is that God is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. I never heard that Facebook fits in the same category.”
Museveni, who has been in power for nearly four decades, was declared the winner of the presidential contest in the elections marred by violence and police interference, according to opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine.
A day after Tanzanians went to the polls on October 28, 2022, the international media reported that the internet had been restricted in the East African country.
Lobby groups in the country said the government had blocked access to Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook.
Twitter had earlier confirmed restriction of its services in the country, amid protests from the opposition.
"Ahead of tomorrow's election in #Tanzania, we're seeing some blocking and throttling of Twitter. #TanzaniaDecides2020
"Internet shutdowns are hugely harmful, and violate basic human rights and the principles of the #OpenInternet #KeepItOn," Twitter said in a statement.
Ahead of tomorrow's election in #Tanzania, we're seeing some blocking and throttling of Twitter. #TanzaniaDecides2020
Internet shutdowns are hugely harmful, and violate basic human rights and the principles of the #OpenInternet #KeepItOn https://t.co/Q2SJfsFUiD— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) October 27, 2020
President John Pombe Magufuli, who was seeking a second term in the polls, never addressed the concerns publicly.
The Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party leader would later be declared the winner of the polls against his main challenger Tundu Lissu of Chadema party. Magufuli died in office on March 17, 2022.
Ethiopia also imposed an internet shutdown that last for about a month ahead of the country's June 2021 polls.
The government took the measures following unrest that rocked the country after the killing of Hachalu Hundessa, a prominent Oromo singer and activist.
Other countries that have reported cases of internet restrictions in recent years are Togo, Zimbabwe, Mali, Chad, Burundi and Guinea.
Sudan, Benin, Gabon, Eritrea, Liberia, Malawi and Mauritania are also on the growing list.