Internet Restrictions Harm the Press & Public Alike
By Michael De Dora*
WASHINGTON, Apr 30 2021 (IPS) – When Myanmar’s military
seized power from the elected government in February, one of its first actions was to further squeeze the already restricted
free flow of information in the country. It obstructed news stations,
temporarily shuttered phone and internet access, and blocked social media
things have only worsened, with dozens of journalists behind
bars, news organizations charged with crimes, and military officials stating the shutdown will not be lifted
The result? At a time when it’s been desperately needed,
independent information has been impossible to either publish or access. As the
country experienced a rapid, unexpected shift in power, the majority of its
citizens—and by consequence the world—have been left in the dark about the details.
The internet shutdown in Myanmar should be an example of what
a government should never do. And yet is an example of what governments are
doing—with disturbing frequency around the world.
All told, there have been more than 500 internet shutdowns across dozens of countries over the
last three years.
As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented,
these shutdowns have serious consequences for press freedom. They leave
journalists struggling to do their job effectively. Turning off or limiting
access to the internet means that media workers are unable to contact sources,
fact check data, file stories, or publish news to the online platforms they
depend on for dispersal.
Internet shutdowns also leave the public deprived of the
ability to access reliable information on what is happening in their community
and their country—or even to phone their neighbor. If the press can’t publish,
the public can’t read. It’s that simple.
And these shutdowns are not limited to autocraties or
dictatorships. They’re happening in democracies, too.
Consider: in August 2019, millions of people living in Jammu
and Kashmir awoke as news broke that the Indian government was planning to
revoke a constitutional provision that granted the contested region’s governing
autonomy and change it from a state to a union territory, essentially bringing
it under federal control.
Except they couldn’t call their neighbors or read the news,
because the Indian government had imposed an internet shutdown and communications blackout.
This blackout extended well into 2020.
The situations in Jammu and Kashmir, and now Myanmar, are
the tip of a largely unnoticed iceberg. In Uganda, the government suspended internet access during its January 2021
elections. In Belarus, authorities blocked local news websites amid protests in September
2020. In Ethiopia, also in response to protests, officials shut down the internet across the country (on the same day,
police raided a news organization and detained journalists). In Iran, the
government cut internet access for at least several days after
protests broke out. In Indonesia, in response to civil unrest, authorities temporarily
blocked the internet.
Why do governments engage in such behavior? For many
reasons, but chief among them: to protect their power.
It is no coincidence that shutdowns are more likely to
happen during times of conflict or unrest, or during an election period. When
governments feel their power threatened, those in charge naturally rush to
protect it. And the perception throughout history is that keeping a firm grip
on what citizens can hear and see will aid authorities in maintaining control.
That explains why, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, government
attempts to shutter internet access became an acute problem. Governments, particularly authoritarian
regimes, sought to control the narrative about the scale of the outbreak or
the quality of its response.
Unfortunately when paired with a public health crisis,
internet shutdowns can have deadly consequences—keeping from people the information
they need to keep themselves and their families safe.
The widespread impact and apparent uptick in internet
shutdowns has forced news outlets and journalists to get creative in order to continue to perform their duties.
It’s also forced civil society to become more proactive.
Organizations are joining together to urge governments to keep the internet on
ahead of elections and crises, and providing advice and assistance to
journalists operating in suffocating environments.
Governments committed to defending human rights and
democracy must now follow suit.
These shutdowns violate foundational rights protected by
both state constitutions and international treaties. Freedom of religion,
belief, opinion, and expression depend on the ability to read, publish, and
exchange information and ideas.
But they’re also counter-productive. In times of unrest and
upheaval, it may appear that keeping the masses in the dark is an agent of
stabilization. In reality it’s the opposite. It shows people that those in
charge consider their power so weak that it cannot withstand discussion or
scrutiny. And it puts on display for the world a government’s true
colors—isolating it while also creating new reasons for the global community to
Internet shutdowns don’t stabilize societies. They crack
open the facade of a government’s authority. If governments are looking to
secure their countries in times of trouble, turning the lights off is not the
answer. Instead, they should ensure the free flow of information. There’s no
more stable foundation for a country than trust in government, and one way to
achieve that is by protecting human rights for all.
* Michael De Dora
is CPJ’s Washington advocacy manager. He leads efforts to advance press freedom
around the world with the U.S. government and other policymakers in Washington,
D.C. Prior to joining CPJ, he served as director of government affairs and as
the main representative to the United Nations at the Center for Inquiry.