Digital authoritarianism: The Sudan playbook

Flag of Sudan/CREDIT: Mirsad Sarajlic/iStock
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On 3 June 2019, live video streams across social media platforms showed an atrocity unfolding in Sudan. The Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Army were massacring protestors that had staged peaceful demonstrations against the Transition Military Council that had deposed President Omar Al-Bashir, calling for a civilian democratic government instead. Around 128 people were killed.

The de facto government responded to the broadcast by shutting down the internet until 9 July 2019. This action marked the beginning of a trend of digital authoritarianism in Sudan. In 2021, it was ranked the worst in Africa and third-worst globally regarding freedom of digital expression, despite a Sudanese court ordering telecommunication companies to restore Internet access. Throughout 2022, three similar shutdowns were reported, in January, June and October.

The 2019 event in Sudan not only marked the beginning of a chronic trend in the country, but also secured it a spot as the leading state in digital authoritarianism in Africa and third in the world in 2021 rankings.

As Internet shutdowns grow more popular in Africa, the events in Sudan offer insight into how governments enact them and attempt to legitimise them.

A multi-pronged approach

To prevent communication to the rest of the world during planned protests, the government of Sudan first blocks all social media platforms (SMPs), including WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. It does this by through Domain Name System (DNS) manipulation, causing a redirection of traffic normally intended for domain name servers belonging to specific SMPs, to servers that are either non-existent or controlled by the government.

Internet service providers (ISPs) play a critical role in this, as the custodians of the primary DNS servers employed by the various account holders that are the end-users of SMPs. To be successful, of course, the state have control of ISPs, mobile network operators, and telecommunication companies – which it typically does in Africa.

This makes it impossible for protesters to mobilise their counterparts, nipping demonstration efforts in the bud. It also cuts off protestors from the rest of the virtual world, creating fertile ground for commission of atrocities without any evidence for international accountability.

Legal basis?

The government typically justifies these actions under claims of national security and public safety. Article 57(2) of Sudan’s 2019 Constitution limits access to the internet in situations that are determined by law to pose a threat to public order, safety and morals. Article 42(2), which is an embodiment of the Sudan’s Bill of Rights, acknowledges international treaties and conventions ratified by the Republic of Sudan.

Under this provision, Sudan is bound by Article 19(3) which stipulates when limitations of freedom of expression are permissible, namely when prescribed by law, necessary in a democratic society, to pursue a legitimate aim. To meet these requirements, Internet shutdowns motivated by concerns around national security and public safety must be the least intrusive option available and not impair the essence of the right. Alternative measures such as requiring organisers of such demonstrations notify security organs or providing more boots on the ground to monitor the situation can be employed.

These clauses are susceptible to abuse, of course, and in Sudan’s case this has been the sad reality. Overall, indefinite and blanket nationwide Internet shutdowns in the country clearly flout these requirements, since they are not proportionate to the objective sought and are therefore not necessary. In turn, this highlights the potential for the promise of digital democracy to turn into the reality of digital authoritarianism when governments are not constrained by an independent judiciary, powerful civil society, and free and fair elections.

Attalo Alvin is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya. He holds a master’s degree in international criminal justice and Human Rights from the University of Kent and conducts research on humanitarian responses to armed conflicts within the African continent.

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