This is the first of a series of posts to mark the official launch of WITNESS’ global campaign on internet shutdowns, that highlights community strategies for documenting human rights abuses during a shutdown. Visit the campaign homepage to stay updated about new resources.

This blog post is available in Spanish and Arabic

In an impassioned viral vlog uploaded via Facebook on 18 January 2011, Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz pleads with her people to hit the streets, and to assemble at Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011. In the days leading up to the Egyptian Day of Revolt, an increasing number of websites and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Whatsapp as well as domestic and international telecommunication services were shut down by the government of Hosni Mubarak. This country-wide network disruption, however, did not stop protesters from instigating the toppling of a 30-year dictatorship. 

Intra-digital Protest

The movement spread quickly to neighbouring countries in southwest Asia and north Africa, including in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, inspiring what came to be known as the Arab Spring. But governments were working hard to prevent pro-democracy content from being seen, and were using violence to intimidate those posting it. From complete blackouts and intermittent throttling to blackholes, from phishing usernames and passwords to hacking anti-government websites, from increased surveillance to exploiting laws to prosecute “defamation”, these governments could not restrict offline actors from forging links with online voices. 

As authorities moved swiftly to stifle online expression and access to information, it became quite clear that video played a crucial role in documenting violations against citizens. Boosted by social media, videos shot by citizens, even shakily, of evidentiary value helped amplify every voice and every death that contributed in fuelling revolutionary change. This new, multi-sphere, multi-faceted form of political activism and digital eye-witnessing has profoundly impacted similar intra-digital protesting across the world till today.

WITNESS’ Standpoint

At WITNESS, our stance is that access to the internet is a human right, and internet shutdowns violate that right. They also severely disrupt people’s lives and livelihoods and have a global economic impact. Internet poverty is especially magnified during a global pandemic. Although globally, internet access is rising, according to World Data Lab, 1.1 billion people are internet poor. 

In 2016, WITNESS came together with a coalition of groups from around the world to speak out against internet shutdowns and demand that governments #KeepItOn. We have observed that network disruptions often occur during protests, elections, and periods of political instability. They are often accompanied by heightened state repression, military offensives, and violence. Increasingly, shutdowns are lengthening in duration, are becoming harder to detect, and spreading across many regions of the world.

Although governments may try to justify shutdowns in the name of “public safety” or similar such reasons, we see that shutdowns take place during times when repressive states fear losing tenuous control over people, information, or political narrative, curtailing universal rights to access to information and freedom of expression. Pressure from international human rights mechanisms such as the United Nations or non-governmental initiatives, have not deterred these repeat offenders. As we have seen in the many years that WITNESS has worked with communities on the ground to ensure that the right to record is upheld, it is more urgent than ever to turn our gaze on places where the internet is a lifeline. 

Asia & Africa

In recent times, governments such as those of India and Myanmar have enacted long periods of internet shutdowns that have resulted in grievous human rights abuse, as well as detrimental financial impact on their economies. The policing of the internet in Indian-occupied Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, the longest shutdown in history, has cost $2.8 billion. The world’s largest democracy justifies their measures on the prevention of violence as a “security measure”, and continues to mete out harsh punishments against dissenters. But for the people of occupied Kashmir, internet shutdowns destroy healthcare, education and livelihoods. 

Since June 2019, the Myanmar government has imposed internet shutdowns in Rakhine and Chin States, claiming “disturbances to peace” and “illegal activities”. Amidst the backdrop of internal armed conflict between the state and ethnic armed forces, serious human rights violations against the Rohingya continue. From the beginning of February this year, videos of military-led abuses, including large-scale shooting against Burmese protesters in Yangon that opposed the coup, spread across the internet. For many citizens, blocking the internet obscures international attention on genocidal acts, which further confirms why the Myanmar state would require its suppression.

Earlier this year, the Ugandan government cut off access to the internet in the middle of polling, making voter-counting and access to independent information difficult. Opposition groups responded by using their phones to document voter intimidation incidents of poll fraud, and relied on livestreaming to protect the safety of opposition candidates. The move by the state to prohibit filming not only restricted citizens from their right to record, but also slashed any evidence that pointed to electoral violations. 

In Nigeria, the government banned Twitter after the platform deleted a tweet by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. For many Nigerian activists, like Treasure Nduka for instance, who mobilised to challenge police brutality during the #EndSARS protests, Twitter was a valuable tool for exposing rights violations and to demand for accountability. 

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Latin America & the Caribbean 

In April this year, demonstrations spread across Colombia against a tax reform proposal by the government that would push more citizens, already disadvantaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, into poverty. The Colombian state responded to the National Strike (#ParoNacional) by violent repression on the ground, seizing phones used to document protests as well as by restricting access to the internet and platform takedowns

The government of Cuba also restricted access to the internet in July this year, when hoards of Cubans hit the streets in an unprecedented anti-government uprising, demanding basic rights such as access to food, medicine and economic relief. A Facebook livestream near the capital Havana is credited as the spark for the protests, as organisers quickly sent videos, audio and text messages to appeal to the diaspora for greater support. 

United States

In the United States, access to the internet is limited by issues like prohibitively high costs, credit checks, lack of broadband infrastructure, and the rolling back of net neutrality protections. The frequency and scale of impact of these issues is often a question of race and class. The FCC reports that an estimated 19 million Americans do not have access to broadband. However, numerous groups argue that this estimate is far too low and that studies often fail to look at how the issue disproportionately impacts low income areas and communities of color. This has heightened during COVID-19 as schooling, access to healthcare, public health messaging, and daily necessities moved online. 

Strategies for Video Documenters

WITNESS has been working with communities directly affected by shutdowns for many years. We have learnt important tips, techniques and strategies from actors on the ground, in capturing and preserving video evidence during shutdowns. As we launch our global campaign ‘Eyes on Internet Shutdowns: Documenting for Human Rights’, we want to emphasize that preparation is key. We think that activists, citizen eye witnesses, journalists and filmers do not have to wait until an internet shutdown is in place to utilize these valuable guidelines.

The tips we share can be applied to Android devices and iPhones, some of which require advance planning (and often, internet access). Not all require a computer. It would be good to review these strategies from time to time, and to implement any steps before you are in a situation where you do not have access to the internet and you need to document. Download 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 are in a crisis situation.

The internet continues to be a vital tool that provides space for activists and citizen eye-witnesses to organize movements, to amplify messages, and expose human rights violations. In the weeks ahead, WITNESS will be sharing more resources and blog posts in multiple languages to support documentation efforts across the world. As we hold those in power accountable together, we invite you to share your ideas and strategies by reaching out to us via email, or by tweeting and sharing posts using the hashtag: #EyesOnShutdowns.

Some key resources:
Follow WITNESS’ regional hubs for multilingual resources:
Partners and allies to support:

AUTHOR: Meghana Bahar is the manager of the Global Digital Engagement program at WITNESS. Prior to this, she helped establish and led regional communications for WITNESS’ Asia-Pacific program. She has over 21 years experience working in transnational and global women’s and human rights movements as a gender and media specialist.

Published 2nd September 2021.

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