Since June 3rd, Sudan has been experiencing an almost-complete internet blackout that’s had devastating effects on the daily lives of citizens, as well as their ability to communicate and organise protests.
The blackout was ordered by the ruling Transitional Military Council and demonstrates their desperation to hold-on to power using any method they can, regardless of any potential long-term damage or the rights of the country’s citizens.
Since December last year, protests have been commonplace in Sudan, stemming from an economic crisis which saw the price of bread triple. These protests eventually resulted in the fall of President Omar al-Bashir on April 11th at the hands of the military council. However, the protests continued as the TMC refused to hand over power to civilians.
On the 3rd of June, protesters staged a mass sit-in in Khartoum which spanned from the military HQ to the river Nile. This was broken up by the TMC, who killed over 100 protestors before dumping more than 40 bodies in the Nile.
As a result of the sit-ins, and under the pretense of security, the TMC implemented an internet blackout. General Saleh Abdel-Khaleq of the TMC stated that the blackout would end once talks between citizens and military officers had resumed, but protestors demanded that the internet be restored before talks take place.
The Sudanese Professionals Association are Sudan’s main protest group and, prior to the shutdown, used Facebook to announce the details of protests. With the internet almost entirely inaccessible, the group are now unable to communicate with their 800k followers, impeding their ability to organise effectively.
The internet blackout has now been in place for three weeks and impacted not only the Sudanese people, but the countries economy and the ability for humanitarian organisations to send support. It has resulted in a “near-total loss of access” to the internet.
Sudan’s court ordered telecoms operator Zain Sudan to restore internet access for civilians. This was the result of a case brought to court by the lawyer Abdel-Abdeem Hassan.
However, Hassan told the BBC last Monday that he had won the case, but only in a personal capacity. This means Hassan is currently the only person in Sudan able to access the internet. The lawyer is now heading back to court in an attempt to end the shutdown for the whole of Sudan.
Why did the TMC order an internet shutdown?
The TMC claim that the internet was shutdown for the sake of national security and there’s no doubt it had an immediate impact on the efforts of protestors. There are, however, some key secondary factors which are likely to have impacted the decision.
Sudan’s limited internet access meant that implementing a shutdown, whilst still hugely impactful, wouldn’t draw the country to a complete standstill. Only 28 percent of citizens use the internet, meaning that the most affected have been protestors who rely on social media and messaging apps to communicate.
Writing for the Washington Post, Stephen Feldstein sites ‘Path Dependency’ as another reason why the TMC were quick to bring on an internet blackout. This refers to Sudan’s previous use of internet disruption and the countries inability to implement a more effective form of digital repression due to a lack of appropriate infrastructure.
Sudan have previously used internet disruption to assert control over civilians. Access to social media networks was restricted for 16 weeks before President al-Bashir lost his presidency in April. It‘s therefore no surprise that a similar tactic has been used to subdue the efforts of protestors and prevent a mass response to the TMCs violence at the sit-in.
Ultimately, disrupting the internet is a familiar strategy of the TMC who are aware of how it can inhibit the organisation of protestors. It’s also a tactic that’s becoming common practise across the globe, including in neighbouring African countries like Uganda.
The use of internet shutdowns by governments globally
As protestors, journalists and everyday citizens have increasingly used the internet to inform a global audience of human rights abuses, governments have realised that disrupting citizens internet access can help them maintain control and suppress dissent.
Data collected as part of Mary Meeker’s 2019 Internet Trends report found that 47% of internet users are living in countries where access to certain social media or messaging platforms has been blocked. Furthermore, 42% of internet users have had their internet or mobile networks disrupted for political reasons.
Countries that have certain social media apps and sites permanently blocked include China and Iran, while Egypt, Ethiopia and Venezuela have all experienced disruption to internet access during times of political unrest.
Ultimately, these stats demonstrate the popularity of internet disruption and censorship within oppressive regimes, who use these methods to suppress dissent and cripple democracy.
How has the blackout affected civilians in Sudan?
The internet blackout has had an immediate impact on civilians, protestors and businesses. The ability for Sudanese citizens to communicate with friends and loved ones has been drastically affected. This is especially the case for those with family abroad, who must now make expensive international calls to stay in contact.
Being cut-off from the internet has also isolated Sudan from the outside world, preventing citizens from keeping up-to-date with global news and accessing trusted news sites. As state TV is run by the military and the popular channel al-Hadeth is Saudi owned (Saudia Arabia give the TMC financial backing), the internet provides a way for the Sudanese to gain knowledge of both international and domestic events.
Crucially, the ability of humanitarian agencies to distribute aid effectively has been compromised by the shutdown. Rich Brennan, regional emergencies director at The World Health Organisation (WHO), claimed that the speed and effectiveness of their work has been reduced as a direct result of the loss of connection.
The Impact on Protestors
The main reason for the internet shutdown was to prevent protestors from organising further sit-ins and demonstrations. The TMC have only partly succeeded in making this a reality.
While organising protests through social media is no longer possible, protestors have begun to organise through word-of-mouth within neighbourhood communities. Individuals are also able to contact each other via text and phone call, with most opting for the latter out of fear their text messages will be tracked.
In an interview for the BBC, a resident of Sudan stated “If the social media wasn’t turned off [on] June 3rd, we would have been able to gather a million person protest,” highlighting the blackouts negative effect on protest organisation.
Nevertheless, protests have been held at night across the capital and in neighbouring cities and are increasing in size as word spreads. This demonstrates that while an internet blackout certainly makes organisation harder, it won’t stop the protests. Protestors will just use other methods to get the word out quickly and effectively.
The Impact on the Economy
While only 28 percent of Sudan have access to the internet, many businesses have still been impacted by the shutdown. Companies such as travel agents and local taxi app Tirhal have been hugely affected. One local Tirhal driver stated he is now making only 20 percent of what he was before the blackout. For businesses, a reliable internet connection is essential.
Netblocks and the Internet Society have estimated that a 5 day shutdown in Sudan costs roughly $228, 924, 285. Given that the blackout has been in place since 3rd June, the cost to Sudan’s economy almost three weeks later will be significantly higher.
This is ironic given that the initial catalyst for the protests back in December was the rising price of bread and the failing economy.
As authorities have realised the importance of the internet in organising protests and oppositional activities, blackouts have become increasingly common. However, shutting down the internet will not prevent dissent. Protestors will simply become more adept at coping without an internet connection and return to more traditional forms of communication.
People have a right to access the internet, communicate with others and express their political opinion. The Sudanese are no different. By implementing a complete internet blackout, the TMC have violated the rights of Sudan’s citizens, hindering free speech and infringing on users digital rights.
This article was originally published on Open Access Government.