At Internet Without Borders we will never cease to say and write this: Internet is a chance for our humanity; its openness reinforces possibilities for freedoms, and equality. Because of these characteristics, this space has often been under attack recently: from private companies, which prefer a fragmented Internet for the purpose of their business model, to Governments, which fear the political impact of that openness, many want to hinder the fundamental architecture and principles of this innovation.
Cameroon is the latest on a list, which unfortunately gets longer, of governments who attack a free and open Internet. Since October 21, 2016, social networks have been accused of spreading rumors by the Minister of Transports; or of being a threat to a peaceful Cameroon, by the Minister of Communications and spokesperson for the government. On November 10, 2016, during the opening of the Parliamentary session, the President of the National Assembly labeled Internet users as “traitors of the cyberspace” and social media as “terrorists”(fr).
Why this fury against social media?
This stance coincides with a tragic event that shook the country: on October 21, at least 80 persons died and more than 500 were injured in the derailment of a train linking Yaoundé to Douala, the two major cities of Cameroon. Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and other social network were important resources for those seeking information on the accident: state owned TV and radio, as well as many of the private media, did not cover the event at the time it had just happened; in the meantime, videos, Facebook posts, Tweets, voice messages giving details on the catastrophe were pouring online. This free flow of information questioned the narrative of the accident given by Government, especially on the number of deaths. According to the Cameroonian press (see a headline here), the Government is allegedly preparing a social media bill, which would limit the dissemination of what the Government considers as rumors. Sadly, This justification, along with the fight against terrorism, is familiar to those who support and fight for protection of online freedom of expression: it is too often used by some regimes to silence critical voices. Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom of the Net report confirms this worrying trend:
27 percent of all internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook.
Internet Sans Frontières contacted the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications of Cameroon for more information. According to the Director of Communication of the Ministry, Mr. Constantin Désiré LEBOGO:
The President of the National Assembly spoke about social networks, not to legislate on the issue, rather to deplore the abuses that are observed today in their use. At the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications we are aware that Social Networks are important, but we invite users to make good use of them, i.e. not for disinformation. We are not talking about a legislation yet. Rather, we are reflecting. A symposium is organized by the University of Yaoundé I, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, Ministry of Higher Education and Communication, for a reflection on the importance of Social Networks, and how to use them for the development of Cameroon. We cannot do without them, but we have to invite citizens to consider that social networks are tools of development, not of destruction.
Freedom of expression in danger
The Cameroonian government does not plan, for now, to specifically legislate on expression on social media, but there is no guarantee that in the future this will still be the case. Recent examples in Chad and Gabon, two neighboring countries of Cameroon, have shown that despite their pledges not to suspend access to the Internet, the latter was cut off at the first signs of popular protest.
A law that would restrict access, or censor social media, for the sole purpose of stopping the spread of alleged false rumors, would be dramatic for Cameroon. From the Human Rights perspective, Cameroon would distance itself from its international commitments on freedom of expression contained in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the right “to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. Freedom of expression, and the rule of law in general, apply with the same strength offline and online, as the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution A/HRC/32/L.20 states.
As a reminder, Cameroon’s 2010 cybersecurity law already punishes “Whoever uses electronic communications or an information system to design,to publish or propagate a piece of information without being able to attest its veracity or prove that the said piece of information was true” (section 78).
While it is understandable that, due to the growing penetration rate of social media in Africa, debates on their alleged positive and negative impact are spreading; this should not be at the expense of Human Rights and Rule of Law principles.
Moreover, there are other pressing issues that are yet to be addressed by numerous Governments, and in this particular case, the Cameroonian one, when it comes to expression on the cyberspace: gender based violence committed online is one of them. In a 2015 survey conducted by Internet Without Borders and the Web Foundation on women’s rights online in Cameroon, we found that as much as 17% of the women surveyed experienced harassment when using the Internet. The legal corpus in Cameroon does not contain provisions to criminalize online violence, harassment or stalking. The adoption of such provisions seems more urgent than advocacy for more surveillance, or censorship of social media in Cameroon. The latter would uselessly stifle innovation and digital economy in Cameroon.
An economic absurdity
According to a 2015 report, Cameroon is the 4th most Entrepreneurial country in the world. It is also home to Buea, aka the Silicon mountain, where self-employed developers and innovators develop the digital economy of the country. A tough regulation on social media, or worse, an access restriction would be dramatic for these businesswomen and men. A Brookings institute report showed that in 2016 alone, the global economy already lost 2 billion USD because of Internet disruptions or shutdowns. Consequences of a social media censorship would hit hard Cameroonian innovators. In addition, such move would contradict the national plan announced by President Paul Biya to invest more in the digital economy.
Internet Without Borders is firmly convinced that the Cameroonian Government will continue to respect its international commitments on freedom of expression, and will not call for a censorship or ban of social media in Cameroon, but will rather act on the pressing issue of gender based violence committed online.
Just in case…
In case the Cameroonian government eventually decides to censor social media in Cameroon, there are ways to counter this. Here is our advice: users can download TOR, and its mobile app called ORBOT. Psiphon is also an interesting circumvention app.
In case you need help installing all these tools, and need more advice, our friends at Access Now have a digital security helpline in various languages, to assist you.