Gabon, a Central African country of roughly 1.8 million people, has evidently resorted to an Internet curfew as a form of information control following a disputed election.
Data from open source Internet traffic monitors indicate a daily ritual of Internet shutdown around 7PM which is turned on again around 7AM the following day. This has been going on for the last two weeks (beginning 5 September). Before this unusual information control, the country underwent four and a half days of total Internet shutdown.
Why is this happening? Short answer - elections. Long answer - imagined fear of political protests as a push-back against a fraudulent election of President Ali Bongo to extend his family’s hold on to the presidency since 1967.
A real-time traffic graph of Google search originating in Gabon showing instances of shutdowns and “curfews”.
The electoral-related crisis was triggered by the delay in announcing the August 27 polls. The main contestants were the incumbent, President Ali Bongo and the former African Union Commission chairman, Jean Ping. After a relatively peaceful voting, initial results streams indicated a Ping-victory.
Why then the curfew?
It is a way to balance between a functional economy powered by the Internet and controlling its utility by citizens for political ends. You work during the day (online) but stay indoors (offline) during the night as soldiers stroll the streets.
Traditionally, night time has been used to ‘move’ against authority under the mask of darkness. In deed, the Government of Gabon authorized a 3 months curfew during the last elections in 2009 when Ali Bongo succeed the dad who had ruled the country for 42 years. The Gabonese government seems to have adapted with the changing nature of political information and organization from just traditional spaces to include online platforms.
Myopic as it may seem, considering Gabonese eventually get news and political developments the following day if they are not circumveting the blocks using VPNs, a sustained Internet censorship creates an information asymmetry leading to an undue advantage for the government media houses and propaganda while throttling alternative perspective.
Internet shutdowns are increasingly used by governments to stifle dissent. In 2016 alone, there have been 13 recorded instances by 11 countries in 8 months. All of them have political protests linked to them, even in cases where the proximate cause is attributed to protection of the integrity of the national exams.
Why it counts to #Keepiton
One practical example of why free flow of information is critical especially in a crisis situation as Gabon is undergoing is the reporting of casualties. Death cases from the government side are often under-reported to give the semblance of order and downplay need for international attention. Opposition quarters may also misinform their supporters on atrocities committed by government creating tension which may spark further fatalities in retaliation- a classic self fulfilling prophecy. In most of these cases, humanitarian response is held in limbo due to conflicting information sources. It is for this reason, from a human centered approach, that keeping the Internet on counts. An open Internet allows for factual understanding of a crisis and shapes its response.