Sierra Leone's new president lobbied regarding internet blackout

West Africa focused internet advocacy group Paradigm Initiative has urged Sierra Leone's new president Julius Maada Bio and his government to prevent interference with internet connectivity in the country.

During the run-off election called on 31 March, internet access to service providers was reportedly down for several hours.

Data gathered by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) shows a complete blackout in internet traffic for Google searches, among others, within the country on the night of 31 March 2018 - although Sierra Leone's National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM) has since denied these allegations.

Adeboye Adegoke, Program Manager at Paradigm Initiative said, "Digital Rights are crucial and cannot be overemphasised. Every Sierra Leone citizen is entitled to the freedom to access information online and express thoughts and opinions no matter how unpopular they are. Also, internet shutdowns have grave economic implications as a lot of small and medium scale business depends on the internet for their survival".

Adegoke added that there is no evidence to suggest that internet shutdowns are justifiable during elections.

"What is evident, however, is that internet shutdowns make it easy to compromise the outcome of elections by changing results during manual transmission. We urge the government in Sierra Leone to actively recognise the independence of the nation's media and the rights of citizens to receive and share information using the digital platform."

Babatunde Okunoye, Research Officer at Paradigm Initiative has challenged NATCOM's denial.

"Although there are reports that the ACE submarine cable, along the West African coast serving several countries was cut during this time, we believe this alone does not account for the level of traffic disruption experienced in Sierra Leone, neither does it account for the absence of mobile telephone services. Clearly, something else, something more sinister, was at play in the country," said Okunoye.

Okunoye also emphasised that the country's constitution guarantees several human rights, some of which are the freedom of expression, of conscience, of association, and of privacy and the government must act to show recognition of these rights not only offline but online as well.

Farida Nabourema, a Human Rights Advocate who was present in Sierra Leone on election day has also condemned the internet shutdown.

"When they see that others can get away with suppressing rights in neighbouring countries, they copy and paste it in their own country. Shutting down the internet and all phone carriers on elections night is a wrong move from the government of Sierra Leone especially after requesting that elections results be transferred manually. How will electoral bodies report incidents?"

A preliminary statement by Kgalema Motlanthe, Head of Mission of the African Union Election Observer Mission to Sierra Leone has concluded that the Sierra Leonean Presidential run-off election was conducted in line with the national legal framework as well as the regional, continental and international standards for democratic elections.