MISA has written to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion And Expression, and, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information regarding the disturbing trend in Eswatini, where the government resorts to internet shutdowns and escalates media violations in the wake of protests in that country. The letter is as written below;
October 21, 2021
Ms. Irene Khan
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion And Expression
Ms. Jamesina King
African Commission on Human and People’s Rights Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information
Re: Restoration of internet and social media services in Eswatini
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) writes to draw your attention to a disturbing trend in Eswatini, where the government resorts to internet shutdowns and escalates media violations in the wake of protests in that country.
MISA is particularly alarmed that despite previous protestations and a pending lawsuit over the blockade of the internet, the Eswatini government has once again resorted to shutting down web-based platforms and social media networks.
The Eswatini government first shut down the internet at the end of June this year following a wave of protests.
This triggered a court challenge against the shutdown. The case is still pending before the courts.
A number of petitions have also been filed with the government of Eswatini, imploring the authorities to uphold freedom of expression and of the media and to keep the internet on, regardless of the protests.
In June 2021, MISA wrote to the Eswatini government raising concerns about the deteriorating press freedom environment in the kingdom. In July 2021, a number of organisations also petitioned His Excellency King Mswati III on the escalating media freedom violations in that country.
However, the government of Eswatini is yet to respond to any of these petitions and has instead doubled down by shutting down the internet when protests raged again.
In the past week, the ICT Minister has written to internet service providers ordering them to block access to social media networks, while independent tests have also confirmed that the internet has been blocked in Eswatini.
While the government argues that the internet shutdown is in the interests of national security, the reality is that this only exacerbates the tensions that are already raging in Eswatini.
By blocking access to the internet, the Eswatini government is violating fundamental human rights of all its citizens, including but not limited to the right to free speech and opinion, access to information and the right to assembly.
Before resorting to shutting down the internet, the Eswatini government should be aware of the need to strengthen democratic systems, such as free speech and freedom of assembly and association.
The internet and social media platforms play a critical role in enhancing participatory governance in a democratic society and it is for this reason that blocking access to the platforms is anachronistic and authoritarian in nature.
As has been previously affirmed, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Resolution from 2016 recognises the “importance of the internet in advancing human and people’s rights in Africa, particularly the right to freedom of information and expression.”
The ACHPR/Res. 362 (LIX) 2016 also condemns the “emerging practice of State Parties interrupting or limiting access to telecommunication services such as the internet, social media, and messaging services”.
Additionally, United Nations experts and high-level officials — including the UN Secretary-General — formally affirm that “blanket Internet shutdowns and generic blocking and filtering of services are considered by United Nations human rights mechanisms to be in violation of international human rights law.”
Further, internet shutdowns disrupt emergency services, cripple economies and restrict the flow of business-related information and communications, including internet-based banking services and transactions.
Section 6 of the Eswatini Communications Commission (ESSCOM) Act, states that the Commission should ensure freedom of provision of communications services and further ensure that the services are not limited, except when strictly necessary.
However, we aver that despite the protests, shutting down the internet at the moment or at any point in future is not “strictly necessary”.
We note with concern that the latest internet shutdown comes at a time when freedoms of expression and of the media are deteriorating in Eswatini.
In light of the foregoing violations and the worrying trend of resorting to internet shutdowns and escalating media violations, we respectfully urge your esteemed offices to publicly intervene and urge the government of Eswatini to respect and protect the rights to freedom of expression and liberty.
In that regard, we urge you to implore the government of Eswatini to implement the following recommendations:
- The government must immediately end the internet shutdown and restore access to social media platforms.
- The government must begin steps to repeal Section 7 (dd) of the Eswatini Communications Commission (ESSCOM) Act that allows the Minister of ICT to order the blockade of the internet and other social media platforms.
- The government must take steps to amend Section 6 of the ESSCOM Act to ensure that the government does not have the power to act unilaterally in shutting down the internet
- The government must order Eswatini Post and Telecommunications, Eswatini MTN and Eswatini Mobile, to immediately restore internet service to all citizens