KeepItOn coalition: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 23 June 2023:
Your Excellency Julius Maada Bio, President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Nations across Africa and the world must ensure people can access open, secure and free internet when they need it the most — during important national events. This election, we urge the government of Sierra Leone to #KeepItOn.
We, the undersigned organizations and members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network of over 300 organizations from 105 countries working to end internet shutdowns — write to urgently appeal to you, President Julius Maada Bio, to ensure that the internet, social media platforms, and all other communication channels remain free, open, secure, inclusive and accessible prior to, during, and after the general election scheduled for Saturday, June 24, 2023.
As the people of Sierra Leone prepare to vote for their leaders in the upcoming elections, it is essential that your government adopts and prioritizes measures to ensure that the election process is inclusive, free, and fair by providing everyone with unfettered access to information and avenues for free expression, assembly, and association — both offline and online.
The internet and social media platforms play a critical role in enhancing participatory governance, advancing inclusiveness and transparency as well as enabling the enjoyment of fundamental human rights in a democratic society as enshrined in the Constitution of Sierra Leone, 2013. These platforms provide spaces for communicating, public discourse, access to information about election processes and candidates and holding governments accountable for their actions. Access to the internet and digital platforms also facilitate reporting and coverage of the elections by journalists, human rights defenders and election observers.
Last year, the #KeepItOn coalition documented at least two incidents of shutdowns in Sierra Leone which were imposed by your government to quell anti-government protests in Freetown. Our advocacy and monitoring over the years show that internet shutdowns interfere with people’s fundamental human rights and endanger lives during crises.
Internet shutdowns harm human rights, exacerbate crises, and stop the free flow of information
Research shows that internet shutdowns and violence go hand in hand. Shutting down the internet during times of conflict, protests, and, most recently, a deadly pandemic adds fuel to the fire, and cuts off access to vital, timely, and life-saving information, and to emergency services. Shutdowns violate fundamental human rights such as freedom of opinion and expression, access to information, freedom of the press, and freedom of peaceful assembly. By disrupting the flow of information, shutdowns exacerbate existing tensions, potentially instigate or conceal violence and human rights violations perpetrated by both state and non-state actors, and spur the spread of misinformation.
Shutdowns also make it extremely difficult for journalists and the media to carry out their work thereby denying people both inside and outside of the country access to credible information. The Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL), human rights defenders, election observers, political parties, election candidates, civil society actors, and other election stakeholders count on the internet to monitor and report on elections, facilitating transparency and openness in the process.
Additionally, imposing internet shutdowns interferes with people’s livelihoods and costs nations billions of dollars as businesses, companies, public and private institutions which rely on the digital economy stand to lose huge sums of money during shutdowns.
Internet shutdowns contravene international laws
Sierra Leone is signatory to regional and international frameworks such as the legally-binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which provide for the protection and promotion of the rights of freedom of opinion and expression, assembly, and access to information — both offline and online. Furthermore, the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa 2019 calls upon States not to “engage in or condone any disruption of access to the internet and other digital technologies for segments of the public or an entire population.”
The 2016 African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Resolution recognizes the “importance of the internet in advancing human and people’s rights in Africa,” and expressed concern over the “emerging practice of State Parties interrupting or limiting access to telecommunication services such as the internet, social media, and messaging services.” Moreover, the UN Secretary General and experts affirm that, “blanket Internet shutdowns and generic blocking and filtering of services are considered by United Nations human rights mechanisms to be in violation of international human rights law.”
Telecom companies must respect human rights
Likewise, telecommunications companies and businesses have a responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises to respect human rights, prevent or mitigate potential harms, and provide remedy for harms they cause or contribute to.
Telecommunications and internet service providers operating in Sierra Leone — including —Orange Sierra Leone, Africell , and Qcell have a responsibility to provide quality, open, and secure access to the internet and digital communication tools.
Internet shutdowns — whether in Sierra Leone or other countries — have proven to be dangerous for human rights and must never be allowed to become the norm. We encourage businesses and enterprises in Sierra Leone to integrate these principles and practices for responding to censorship and network disruption requests in all markets where they operate.
As organizations that believe in the power of the internet and digital platforms as an enabler of many other human rights, we respectfully request that you use the important positions of your offices to:
Publicly assure the people of the Republic of the Sierra Leone that the internet, including social media and other digital communication platforms, will remain open, accessible, inclusive and secure across the country before, during and after the election;
Refrain from ordering the interruption of telecommunications services, social media platforms, and other digital communication platforms before, during or after the elections;
Ensure that telecommunications and internet service providers implement all necessary measures to provide high-quality, secure, unrestricted and uninterrupted internet access throughout the election period and thereafter in line with their quality of service and license conditions; and,
Ensure that telecommunication and internet service providers inform internet users of any potential disruptions, and to take all reasonable steps to fix any identified disruptions likely to impact the quality of service they receive.
Kindly let us know how the #KeepItOn coalition can support you in upholding a free, open, secure, inclusive, and accessible internet for all in Sierra Leone.
Advocacy Initiative for Development (AID)
African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX)
Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC)
Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation (AODIRF)
ARTICLE 19 Senegal West Africa
Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE)
Bloggers of Zambia
Campaign for Human Rights and Development International
Centre for Community Empowerment and Development – Malawi
Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding CEMESP
Centre for Multilateral Affairs (CfMA)
Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Common Cause Zambia
Digital Rights Kashmir
Global Digital Inclusion Partnership (GDIP)
Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ)
International Press Institute
Internet Protection Society (Russia)
Kijiji Yeetu (Kenya)
Measurement Lab (M-Lab)
Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)
Myanmar Internet Project
OONI (Open Observatory of Network Interference)
Organization of the Justice Campaign-OJC
Paradigm Initiative (PIN)
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Support Center for Rural and Community Development (CADERCO/DRC)
The Tor Project
Women of Tigray (WOT)
Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET)
Women ICT Advocacy Group (WIAG)
World Wide Web Foundation
Hon. Mohamed Rahman Swaray as Minister of Information and Communications; Mr. Mohamed Kenewui KonnehChairman of the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL), Mr. Francis Langumba Keili, Chief of Staff; Mr. Sekou Amadou BAH – Chief Executive Officer (CEO) – Orange SL; Mr. Jayamani Karthik, QCell; His Lordship Justice Desmond Babatunde Edwards, Mr. William Fayia Sellu, Inspector General of Police; Rev. Shodankeh Johnson, Chairman Independent Commission for Peace and National Cohesion; Mr. Khalil Kallon, Executive Secretary, Independent Media Commission and Mr. Abdulai M. Bangura Esq, Chairman Political Parties Regulation Commission