“The cancer of the modern world.”
This is how Senegal’s President Macky Sall described social media after protests erupted over his government’s arrest of a main opposition leader and Senegal’s ruling party lost key local elections early in 2022. In Senegal, a country where 70% of the population is below 40, people have taken to social media to discuss politics, to express their anger, and to organize. In French, Wolof, and English, the hashtag #freeSenegal became a rallying cry on Twitter and Instagram to mobilize protests. Senegal’s civil society is one of the most notably vibrant and diverse free civil societies in Africa. However, the Senegalese government, like too many others in Africa and around the world, sees online dissent and political debate as something to be remedied, and is increasingly using forms of digital repression and censorship to control online spaces. In 2021, as protests and online dissent grew, the government did what so many other governments have started to do: they tried to shut it down.
On March 4, 2021, following a day of protests and cases of violence, the government allegedly restricted access to Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Telegram, and suspended two private television channels that had heavily covered the protests. There is limited evidence available about this internet shutdown incident, in part because the shutdowns reportedly occurred early in the morning and only for a few hours. Additionally, as reported by local actors, civil society was not prepared for such a shutdown, with few people equipped to technically measure incidents of network disruption and little capacity on the part of journalists to adequately cite technical evidence and report on the shutdown. Without clear evidence, it remains extremely difficult to verify internet shutdowns and to hold governments accountable.
As described by Felicia Anthonio, the #Keepiton campaign manager, “We know something happened to the internet in Senegal in 2021. Sengelese diaspora Tweeted of restrictions, local media outlets reported blockings, and civil society actors shared what information they had. However, with nobody on the ground able to measure the social media disruption, we haven’t been able to verify this shutdown with concrete data. Situations like this underscore the need to have been on the ground measuring — everywhere! To truly paint a picture of how invasive internet shutdowns are, and to give the most power to our advocacy, we need both solid data and to share the voices of those whose lives were affected.”
For a country that has long been seen as one of the most stable democracies in Africa, there are worrying signs of democratic backsliding under Sall. The Press Code, passed in 2017, as well as the use of national security laws to arrest journalists have constituted significant attacks on media freedom in the country. The government has repeatedly called for social media regulations. In July of this year, the main opposition party’s candidates for legislative election were disqualified over a minor issue. Many worry that Sall and his APR party will pursue an unconstitutional third term.
Senegal will hold presidential elections in 2024. Considering escalating tensions in the country and increased repression by the ruling government, there is a need to pay attention now to bolster Senegal’s democracy and support Senegalese civil society to organize and prepare for possible election and post-election scenarios. The narrative of “Senegalese exceptionalism” — that Senegal’s democracy is impervious to authoritarian trends and economic/political turmoil — inhibits Senegalese civil society from making the case for preparations and protections both at home and abroad. There is too much at stake to take Senegalese democracy for granted.
“I think the probability of shutdowns in the coming years is very high.
The civil society cannot afford to sit back and hope the government will do the right thing.
They never do that, especially when they can get away with it. The civil society needs to be
prepared to hold the government accountable, as well as engage the international community on it."
With internet shutdowns occurring with increasing frequency around protests and elections in Africa, Internews’ OPTIMA project worked with Senegalese organizations, Jonction and Computech to provide an in-depth examination of a civil society uncertain about its future and the potential for increased censorship of the media and digital spaces. Drawing on a survey of civil society stakeholders as well as a co-design workshop, this report outlines how civil society perceives the threat of internet shutdowns in Senegal, the gaps that exist when it comes to digital policy expertise and technical data collection, and the resources required to prepare for possible shutdowns.
This in-depth needs assessment is part of a series of reports focusing on civil society needs in four distinct countries as it relates to preparing for and preventing internet shutdowns. These assessments sought to better understand the nuanced ways in which internet shutdowns occur in different countries, including:
- Patterns and trends in technical mechanisms used in specific places to shut down the internet;
- Political and social triggering events and government for shutting down the internet;
- Perceptions of the wider impact of shutdowns on economies and societies;
- Differential impacts that shutdowns have on specific vulnerable groups and marginalized populations;
- Laws and regulations that contribute to an enabling environment for internet shutdowns and inhibit advocacy related to censorship and internet shutdowns;
- Perceptions about future risk of internet shutdowns; and
- Perceptions about civil society preparedness and advocacy capacity in areas such as awareness-raising and stakeholder engagement, documentation of impact and network measurement, circumvention strategies and protection of vulnerable communities, and legal capacity to engage in litigation.
This research is meant to not only inform global audiences about specific shutdown threats and civil society perceptions in these countries, but also to serve as a starting point to collaboratively develop national advocacy strategies and engage in deliberate outreach, training, and resource development to target identified challenges and needs in each country. The recommendations included at the end of the report are based on collective reflections and determinations of key needs and strategic priorities of the Senegalese “Prepare & Prevent” network. These recommendations are currently being implemented through Internews’ OPTIMA project, and we encourage interested parties to contact the authors to participate in coalition activities and to support this work.