Internet shutdown violates people’s freedoms – expert


  • Encroaches on economic and social rights


MASERU –  Internet shutdowns are a serious violation of civil and political rights. This is according to Lloyd Kuveya, Assistant Director in Operations at the Centre for Human Rights at the South African University of Pretoria. He was speaking to Public Eye this week. Kuveya was reacting to the reinstatement of the controversial Computer Crime and Cyber Security Bill (2022) in the country and on the expected impact should an internet shutdown be imposed in Lesotho.  The Bill has created a new wave of commotion among citizens, civil society and the media fraternity.

“Children who want to do their research or homework will be impeded as they access education. Online business transactions cannot be conducted and people are unable to buy food, clothing and other necessities. “When the internet is down companies are unable to operate their businesses and employees cannot do their work, resulting in losses,” said Kuveya. A May 8, 2022, United Nations report titled ‘Internet shutdowns: trends, causes, legal implications and impacts on a range of human rights’ explains internet shutdowns as measures taken by a government, or on behalf of a government, to intentionally disrupt access to, and the use of, information and communications systems online.

Shutdowns often include complete blocks of Internet connectivity or accessibility of the affected services. However, governments increasingly resort to throttling bandwidth or limiting mobile service to 2G, which, while nominally maintaining access, renders it extremely difficult to make meaningful use of the Internet, the report further explains.

Studies have further shown that pivotal among challenges that can be borne by a possible internet shutdown in the country is the violation of freedom of expression, access to information and political participation, while also encroaching on economic and social rights.A vast array of human rights and civil liberties are largely impacted by internet shutdowns.

People fail to get good hospital treatment, pupils’ education is affected and there will be an imminent threat to the country’s economy due to online businesses failing to operate which arises when there are internet shutdowns. And in light of these the Internet Society-Lesotho chapter chairperson, Ithabeleng Moreke-Chabana, says “Internet shutdowns could affect businesses, education, communication with loved ones, access to some services, as there are people that rely heavily on the information from the internet for health purposes.

“Also hospitals connect to the internet despite them having an internal connection they still rely on the internet. Our personal lives could also be impacted because communication is essential for human stability.”Ithabeleng also said that Lesotho is not at a point where its government can impose internet shutdowns. “Fortunately for Lesotho at this point, the government cannot enforce an internet shutdown unless they force the service providers to stop the service, which would be illegal and I do not believe that service providers would concede to that, the government previously tried to but they failed,” she said.

“Again, because the Cybercrime Bill of 2022 is not well informed, it has the potential to allow government to impose internet shutdowns. “Many stakeholders submitted comments which were not considered, this means that this Bill is not inclusive and could potentially harm human rights of Basotho, hence lawyers, journalists, civil societies and other stakeholders are contesting this Bill,” warned Moreke-Chabana.

On the other hand, a small online business owner in Maseru, Itumeleng Juju Mahase-Sello, told Public Eye that: “I rely a lot on the internet for business growth, specifically for advertising. We sometimes use well known pages such as Lilaphalapha from Facebook and that comes in handy in promoting my business.

“I use Facebook mostly for communication but I still use other social media platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp. I believe it would greatly affect new clients as returning clients have my number to call me when they need something.”

“Internet shutdowns impose heavily on freedom of speech, as journalists we say that all rights by the people are not fully enjoyed if they are censored, meaning when there’s an internet shutdown, there is blocked communication and basic human rights are infringed because some of those rights only matter or are useful when one is able to communicate whatever they want,” she said.

From a media perspective MISA-Lesotho national director, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, pointed out that freedom of speech plays a huge role that all the citizens of Lesotho enjoy their other rights.Ntsukunyane added that if there is no freedom of speech it means that education, a basic right for Basotho, will not pass and when there’s is no freedom of speech it means there will be lack of knowledge. This reporter also spoke to a source in Myanmar, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“It was the morning of February 1 when I woke up to find that the internet was not working. I assumed it was probably my phone that had issues so I restarted the phone only to find that I still kind access the internet. “I let it go thinking it was just network issues, only for my friend to come to my house to let me know that there has been a coup and that our leader Aung Sann Suu Kyi had been detained and that there is an internet shutdown. I remember feeling like our world was in darkness and could not do anything the whole day.” “Because of the internet shutdown I was not able to work anymore at the time. We were working from home at the company I work for because of increasing numbers of Covid-19. Again at the time I was also teaching English courses online and I had to stop for another six months. We got back the internet a few days after, although some social media platforms are banned in Myanmar. “In my country we use Facebook for everything, online marketing and businesses mainly happen on Facebook and the ban has crippled a lot of businesses. We are currently using VPNS to access these platforms. With the banning of popular social media platforms in place, we have now resorted to using other social media platforms such as Telegram and Signal,” said the source.

A statement presented by Advocate Mokitimi Tšosane on behalf of the Transformation Resource Centre at the 75th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Right highlights that, though not explicitly stated, like any other, Lesotho’s constitutional democracy reflects the paramount importance of human dignity and the worth and value of each individual.

According to Tšosane, constitutional democracy includes, among its highest purposes, the protection of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression and that antithetic to the previous authoritarian regimes. Among other things the new democratic dispensation included among its highest purposes the protection of freedom of expression and access to information, right to privacy, freedom from arbitrary search and seizure, right to fair trial, and freedom from cruel and inhumane punishment. “As we celebrate 30 years of the democratic constitution, it is with great concern that there is lurking in our midst, Computer Crimes and Cybersecurity Bill which has elements that justify overreach of enforcement powers suffocating the very essence of a responsive democracy – freedom of expression and speech and the right to be free from intrusions and interference by the state and others deriving from the right to privacy. “In the Bill, the government risks excluding the general public from the greater information society in this information era. The Bill encompasses sections meant to undermine and erode the right to privacy, freedom from arbitrary search and seizure of property, freedom of expression and access to information, and right to a fair trial. These provisions have the potential to shrink the civic, media, and political spaces,” said the Mokitimi in the statement.

Recommendations made in the statement are that the government of Lesotho should review and rework the Bill considering all comments received from all stakeholders including the public and private sector, as well as the legal profession, academia, and information security practitioners.

This would put it in line with Section 20 (a) of the constitution, and that the government must attend to sections meant to undermine the right to privacy, freedom from arbitrary search and seizure of property, freedom of expression and access to information, and right to a fair trial be deleted entirely as they have the potential to shrink the civic, media, and political spaces.

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