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The Internet Blackout in English-Speaking Cameroon Continues

“Connected in the Developing World” connectivity map by Big Thinking Applied. Labeled for reuse.

In English-speaking regions of Cameroon, the internet has been shut down since January.

This is not unprecedented — when faced with widespread public discontent, some governments respond by blocking access to social networks or the Internet altogether. In Africa, multiple countries have resort to this tactic when threatened by electoral violence, student uprisings, union protests, or political instability following unpopular decisions by the government.

The current unrest in Cameroon's anglophone regions stems from many factors. In a blog post published on courrierdesafriques.net, Bounya Lottin explains why lawyers took to the streets in protest on October 11, 2016.

Au nombre des problèmes qui fâchent les compatriotes anglophones, on retrouve en première place la question du «Common Law» par opposition au «Droit civil». Le premier est en usage chez les Anglophones alors que le second est l’outil des avocats d’expression francophone. L’incompatibilité entre les deux systèmes juridiques débouche sur d’insurmontables complications. En zone anglophone, au nom du Common Law hérité du colon britannique, l’avocat peut au gré des circonstances officier comme «juge», notaire ou huissier de justice. Ce fait a profondément modelé la manière dont les hommes de loi dans la partie anglophone du pays ont été formés. Cela fait forcément problème lorsque le régime dominant francophone veut imposer la norme des Notaires distincts des huissiers et des avocats dans la partie anglophone.

First among the many problems our English-speaking compatriots find irritating is the issue of ‘common law’ versus ‘droit civil’ [French for ‘civil law’]. While the former is used among anglophones, the latter is used by French-speaking lawyers. The incompatibility between these two systems of justice causes insurmountable complications. Under common law, a holdover from British colonialism, attorneys in English-speaking areas may, depending on the circumstances, act as judge, notary, or court bailiff. This has strongly influenced the way in which anglophone lawyers have been trained. Needless to say, problems occur when the francophone government tries to enforce standards for notaries, bailiffs, and lawyers in anglophone regions.

Escalating feelings of marginalization in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest Regions lie at the heart of this long-lived drama. Anglophones represent approximately 20% of Cameroon's population of 22.5 million.

Teachers, students and unions soon followed suit as they sounded off against the unequal status of the English language in education, business, and institutions. On December 8, 2016, the number of deadly confrontations with police and arrests of protesters quickly escalated in the streets of the Northwest Region capital, Bamenda. There were 4 casualties and serious injuries.

In the face of increasing unrest, access to the internet was cut off in English-speaking areas in mid-January 2017. There have been serious and widespread repercussions since.

Campaign poster for the restoration of internet access in Cameroon – public domain

Access Now, an organization that defends the digital rights of users at risk around the world, has published an open letter on its website addressing the CEOs of Cameroonian telecommunication companies. Twenty civil society organizations from Cameroon, Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere have signed the document.

En bloquant l’accès à l’information et aux services, la perturbation de la connectivité empêche l’exercice de droits humains, notamment les libertés d’expression et d’association, et ralenti le développement économique, en portant un coup sérieux aux entreprises innovantes qui dépendent de vos services. Nous estimons que la coupure Internet a déjà coûté 1,39 million de dollars, un chiffre qui ne fait que grimper quotidiennement. Cette estimation ne prend pas en compte les effets à long terme de ce défaut de connectivité, comme la perturbation de la chaine de production, ou encore les importants envois d’argent de la diaspora camerounaise.

By blocking access to information and services, the disruption thwarts the exercise of human rights, including the freedoms of expression and association, and slows economic development, seriously harming the innovative businesses dependent on your services. We estimate the shutdown has already cost more than US$1.39 million and grows daily. However, this conservative estimate does not take into account the long-term effects of factors such as the disruption of supply chains and of the significant amount of remittances that Cameroonians living abroad send to these regions.

Ticmag.net, a website featuring African ITC and telecommunications news, published an article citing a report from the NGO Internet sans frontières.

Notons que pour faire face à cette situation, bon nombre de startups ont été obligés de déménager pour s’installer dans les villes voisines qui bénéficient de connexion Internet. C’est ainsi que bon nombre de jeunes startuppeurs de Buea se sont retrouvés à Douala et ceux de Bamenda à Bafoussam.

Depuis, la mobilisation sur les réseaux sociaux ne faiblit pas en vue d’un retour d’Internet. Un hashtag a même été lancé, #Bringbackourinternet. Pour l’instant, sans grand résultat.

We have noticed that this situation has forced a good number of startups to move to neighboring towns that still have access to the internet. Many young startup entrepreneurs from Buea are now in Douala and some from Bamenda have moved to Bafoussam.

Efforts made through social media to restore internet access have remained strong. The hashtag #bringbackourinternet has been created, but, for the moment, has seen little success.

The blackout continues, despite the fact that as far back as 2012, Alexandre Salque noted on 01net.com, one of France's most visited sites specializing in information technology, that the UN (of which Cameroon is a member) has recognized access to the internet as a basic human right.

Fait historique. Pour la première fois, l’ONU reconnaît qu’accéder à Internet est un droit fondamental, au même titre que d’autres droits de l’homme. Les 47 membres du conseil des droits de l’homme de l’ONU ont signé à l’unanimité la résolution qui établit que chaque individu a le droit de se connecter et de s’exprimer librement sur Internet.

Historic event. For the first time, the UN recognizes that access to the internet is a fundamental right, equivalent to other human rights. The 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council unanimously signed a resolution stating that every individual has the right to internet access and online freedom of expression.

Subsequently, in July 2016, during its 32nd session, the same group adopted by consensus a further resolution on freedom of expression on the internet.

de manière univoque les mesures ayant pour but de volontairement empêcher ou perturber l'accès à ou la diffusion d'information enligne, en violation des Droits humains protégés internationalement, et appelle tous les États à réfréner ou cesser l'usage de telles pratiques.”

The Human Rights Council…also condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law, and calls upon all States to refrain from and cease such measures.

The resolution also encouraged all nations to guarantee freedom of expression in accordance with their international obligations.

aborder les préoccupations de sécurité sur Internet conformément à leurs obligations internationales relatives aux droits de l’homme afin de garantir la protection de la liberté d’expression, de la liberté d’association, du droit à la vie privée et d’autres droits de l’homme en ligne, au moyen notamment d’institutions nationales démocratiques et transparentes, fondées sur les principes du droit, d’une manière qui garantisse la liberté et la sécurité sur Internet afin que celui-ci puisse rester une force dynamique génératrice de développement économique, social et culturel ;

The Human rights Council…calls upon all States to address security concerns on the Internet in accordance with their international human rights obligations to ensure protection of freedom of expression, freedom of association, privacy and other human rights online, including through national democratic, transparent institutions, based on the rule of law, in a way that ensures freedom and security on the Internet so that it can continue to be a vibrant force that generates economic, social and cultural development.

Unfortunately, the Cameroon government has decided to ignore its obligations to such international resolutions and continues to attack freedom of expression as evidenced by threats from the National Communication Council (NCC) on January 20, 2017 to suspend or close several media outlets. The Union of Cameroonian journalists has called  on the Cameroonian authorities to put an end to threats against the media and journalists and to engage in a constructive dialogue with the media on their role in Cameroon's society.

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