With contributions by Arul Prakkash
Last reviewed: 31 January 2020
In June 2019, as human rights abuses and a humanitarian crisis were continuing in Myanmar, the country’s Ministry of Transport and Communication directed telecom companies to shut down their mobile internet service in parts of Rakhine State and neighboring Chin State. Citing “disturbances of the peace” and “illegal activities,” the Myanmar government claims to have enacted the shutdown “for the benefit of the people.” In reality, the blackout cut over a million people off from access to essential information and communication, and disrupted humanitarian efforts. As Matthew Smith from Fortify Rights has stated, “This shutdown is happening in a context of ongoing genocide against Rohingya and war crimes against Rakhine, and even if it were intended to target militants, it’s egregiously disproportionate.”
The shutdown was partially lifted on five of the townships in September 2019, but is ongoing. During the same month, in neighboring Bangladesh where many Rohingya have fled, authorities ordered mobile phone operators to block 3G and 4G services in Rohingya refugee camps and to stop selling SIM cards to Rohingya. As we enter 2020, four townships in Rakhine continue to be cut off from the world, and Bangladesh continues to limit service in the refugee camps.
Documenting During Internet Shutdowns
Globally, internet shutdowns are on the rise. According to AccessNow’s #KeepItOn campaign, there were 128 intentional shutdowns between January – July 2019, compared to 196 in all of 2018, and up sharply from 106 in 2017, and 75 in 2016. Around the world, governments, with the cooperation of telecom companies, are increasingly turning to internet shutdowns as a strategy to repress communities, prevent mobilization, and stop information about human rights violations from being documented and shared.
– Berhan Taye, AccessNow
Shutdowns can take various forms, including platform-specific blockages that target popular apps and sites, mobile data shutdowns, bandwidth throttling, or total internet blackouts. All of these types of shutdowns are intended to disrupt the ability to communicate information and expose violations in real-time. They often occur during protests, elections, and periods of political instability, and are often accompanied by heightened state repression, military offensives, and violence. While governments may try to justify shutdowns in the name of “public safety” or other reasons, shutdowns clearly take place at moments when repressive states fear losing tenuous control over their people, information, or political narrative. Shutdowns violate human rights, severely disrupt people’s lives and livelihoods, and also have a global economic impact.
Documenting human rights violations is as important as ever during an internet shutdown. Even if information cannot be shared in the moment, documentation can be a way to preserve voices that authorities are trying to silence, and to secure evidence of abuses that can be used to demand accountability later on. Of course, the repressive context and the technological impediments of an internet shutdown make documenting violations — and maintaining that documentation securely — much more challenging and risky. How can activists capture and preserve their videos during a shutdown, and even share them offline, and do so in safer ways?
Through our work with activists who have experienced internet shutdowns, we have learned some useful tips and approaches to capturing and preserving video documentation during internet shutdowns that we are sharing in this series. We wrote them with Android devices in mind, but the tips can be applied to iPhones as well. Some of the strategies require advance planning (and often, internet access), so it’s a good idea to review them and implement any steps before you are in a situation where you do not have internet and you need to document. Save a copy of any of the tutorials so you can refer to them or share them during a shutdown. And finally, start practicing the techniques and methods in your everyday work so that they become second-nature before you’re in a crisis situation.
- Share and Communicate
One final note: While these tips can help you continue documenting in the face of a shutdown, we want to emphasize that the ultimate solution must be to restore internet access, and successfully defend people’s right to record, and freedom of expression, information, and assembly. Fortunately, there is a global movement led by organizations like NetBlocks, AccessNow, and many others who are actively monitoring and sharing information about shutdowns. Advocates globally are engaging in strategic litigation against shutdowns. We stand in solidarity with their work to uphold human rights.