Polling day passed the benchmark for peace and calm during voting, but failed dismally on the digital rights scorecard when Togo shut off the internet.
This statement was originally published on mfwa.org on 28 February 2020.
On February 22, 2020, the Togolese went to the polls in a much-anticipated presidential election that eventually extended the mandate of incumbent President Faure Gnassingbe for another five years. According to the results of the Independent Electoral Commission (CENI), the candidate for the Union for the Republic (UNIR) party, Faure Gnassingbé, who has been in power since 2005, won more than 72% of the valid votes.
Contrary to fears of violence, especially in the event of protests against the eventual results, the polls and their aftermath have been largely peaceful. The incident-free media coverage of the electioneering campaign was replicated during and after the polls without any press freedom violations being reported.
However, as the polling stations closed and the counting began, several social media users began experiencing disruptions in connection. Several monitoring reports by Netblocks, an organisation that monitors and maps internet access around the world, indicated that social media networks such as Facebook and Messenger were inaccessible in several parts of the country beginning at 17:00 GMT. Twitter and WhatsApp were, however, partially accessible at the time, according to reports from MFWA’s correspondents in Togo.
Togo thus confirmed fears expressed by many, including the MFWA, ahead of the elections that the internet could be disrupted during the elections. These fears were fuelled by the precedent set in August 2017 when telephone communications and access to the internet and social networks were disrupted to subdue a demonstration to demand changes to Togo’s electoral laws. The fears were also as a result of a recent trend of election-related shutdowns in West Africa; Mauritania and Benin shut the internet during their presidential and legislative elections respectively last year.
Internet shutdowns have become the choice of repressive tool of autocratic regimes whenever their stewardship is tested either through protests, mass criticism or demands for accountability on social media or during elections.
Cutting off access to social media services at a critical time in social and political life, particularly during the presidential election, constitutes a violation of citizens’ freedom of expression and their right to information. This is all the more serious because people needed to connect, share ideas and participate in the political process, which they largely do through social media platforms. Such disruptions at moments like this are liable to create suspicions of ulterior motives on the part of the government, thus creating avoidable tensions and possible escalation into violence.
While we welcome the fact that no attacks against the media were recorded throughout the entire electoral process, the MFWA condemns the disruption of social media networks in Togo during the presidential elections as a violation of the digital rights of citizens. The disruption also violated citizens’ right to access information and their right to freedom of expression. We urge President Faure Gnassingbe to prioritise digital rights and freedom of expression and human rights generally.