Appeal goes out to UN, Africa Union over Burundi social media shutdown

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Access, a global human rights group, has appealed to the United Nations and the African Union to intervene in the Burundian government’s decision to block mobile social media amid protests aimed at stopping President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third-term bid.

The government of Burundi on Monday ordered the shutdown of social media applications including Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, and Viber on the mobile Web, according to various media reports. The country’s telecom sector regulator ordered telecom operators to block the apps, according to reports.

“Although fixed-line internet does not appear to be impacted, the majority of internet users in Burundi rely upon mobile internet for connectivity,” Access noted in a letter to the UN and the African Union.

Media reports confirm clashes among civilians and between civilians and police. A radio station in Burundi has also been reported closed while others are prevented from broadcasting live the protests, which have so far killed several people. More than 10,000 people have fled to neighboring countries.

“We are writing to urgently request your immediate action on the internet shutdown taking place in Burundi, and your sustained attention to the increasing trend of blocking, throttling, and disconnecting users’ digital communications during times of protest,” Access said in its letter.

Blocking of the Internet or applications on the Internet such as social media, violates the right to freedom of expression by denying the rights of persons to seek, receive and impart information, Access said

In January this year, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) also blocked access to the Internet, social media and mobile phone communications following days of protests aimed at blocking President Joseph Kabila from seeking a third term of office.

As in many other countries in Africa, including Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia, the Burundian government claims the Internet is putting the security of the country at risk because protesters are using it to coordinate protests.

The situation in Burundi remains tense and there is no indication as to when the access to social media platforms would be restored.

In Africa, the Web is increasingly becoming a conduit for expressing social unrest.

Burundi’s presidential elections are scheduled for June this year and political tensions have been rising in the Central African country. The country’s constitution allows a president to rule for a five-year term, renewable for one term. However, Nkurunziza and his supporters claim he is eligible to serve a third term because he was first installed as president to lead a transitional government, rather than by a popular vote.

Before becoming president, he was a leader of rebel group that fought a civil war for 12 years, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people.

On Monday this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a statement condemning the violence and dispatched the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes Region, Said DJinnit, to consult with Nkurunziza and other politicians.

Andrew Makanya, managing director of Internet Solution Zambia, called on governments in the region to take their politics away from the Internet. Aside from human rights issues, such actions are detrimental to the economy, he noted.

“If the trend of shutting down Internet and mobile phone services continue, it will scare away investors in the telecom sector because during the periods of shutdowns, operators and Internet service providers make losses and are never compensated,” Makanga said.

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