March 28, 2019 marked an important date in the world of social media. Other than being my brother, Justin’s 18th birthday, March 28, 2019 marked the one year anniversary of the ban of social media in Chad. For the last year, the country of over 13 million had their access to social media blocked by the national government. On March 28 2018, millions of people in Chad attempted the normal daily routine of waking up and immediately checking their social media platforms of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and the popular international messaging app of WhatsApp. Instead of getting met with the usual social media pictures and posts, people of Chad were met with an error message. What was the explanation of this error message? First, the error was attributed to technical difficulties. Others suspected the social media blackout to be caused by recent public demonstrations.
As time progressed, the internet blackout was deemed to be the order of President Idriss Deby. For the last 30 years, President Deby has remained in power with the most recent reelection occuring in 2016. The recent protests were against his extended reign. Often these types of protests are organized with social media. The social media blackout is the direct result of an attempt to curtail this resistance. The frightening realization is how extended the ban on social media has become. Chad is now in over a year of social media blackout. This has had irreparable effects upon the economy of Chad. Experts from Internet Without Borders has estimated that $20 million was lost from the country’s economy. Further, the extended blackout has the potential to affect the country’s entrepreneurship and communication growth. The disconnect has caused the loss of friendships and relationships, businesses have failed due to lack of marketing, and journalism has suffered greatly due to access to the foreign news and events.
This is not an uncommon practice for African countries to restrict internet and social media access. In just the first couple months of 2019, five additional countries have restricted internet access. These include: Algeria, Zimbabwe, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Alegria experienced only a brief few hours of blackout during the protests of President Bouteflika. Zimbabwe’s ban on social media and internet access was revoked quickly in court, deemed unconstitutional. This was judicial move was even among pubic revolts. Gabon’s internet access was briefly revoked during an attempted coup. The access was immediately returned after the coup was defeated. The Democratic Republic of Congo instituted a brief blackout during elections. The DRC immediately returned access when elections were completed. Sudan had an extensive shutdown during protests against the government. This lasted 68 days until access was granted. All of these pale in comparison to the more than a year ban in Chad of social media.
So why is this important? First, Chad’s economy and population is hurting from this ban. President Deby has instituted a ban that is affecting the mental health and happiness of his citizens. Additionally, the ban is affecting businesses as they attempt to grow through marketing and customer engagement. Secondly, this situation in Chad has prolonged for so long due to the lack of Western influence and pressure. Chad is a part of a theme in African issues in which central African countries according to Juliet N. Nanfuka of Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa, “[African countries] tend to attract less regional or international attention in the face of government excesses, compared with East Africa or Southern Africa.” Coupled with this, Chad and President Deby are engaged in the fight against Islamist militants and require alliances with many Western countries.
So is all hope lost? The answer is no. As recently as March 12, 2019, the African Freedom of Expression Exchange distributed a petition with 80 signatures from international organizations to the members of the United Nations and African Union. Contained within this petition is the call for President Deby to institute normal access. Coupling this effort, the group known as Internet Without Borders has been within Chad distributing virtual private networks or VPNs to help activists get around the blocked access. The VPNs give activists the ability to assume an anonymous identity when attempting to work towards improved governance. There lies importance in knowing about the struggle in Chad. As stated in the recent discussions and public speakers in class, social media is the Public Square. Social media has now progressed to the point of banning social media is equivalent to banning the public square. For progress to be made in these developing countries, the public square must be open and functioning allowing for the creation and dialogue of ideas and criticism. A denial of this is a denial of a vehicle for innovation and progress. And Chad has been without that vehicle for 369 days. #KeepItOn
For those looking for more information, please refer and spread the AFEX petition for open internet access: