Felicia Anthonio: You were in the mid­dle of com­plet­ing your uni­ver­si­ty appli­ca­tion online, excit­ed to be mak­ing the next big step in your life. Just when you were about to hit sub­mit, the Internet sud­den­ly went off. At the time, your moth­er told you not to wor­ry. There was still a week left before the appli­ca­tion dead­line. But that week passed quick­ly, along with a dead­line, and the Internet remained off. No one knew for how much longer it would last. 

You thought that miss­ing your chance to apply for uni­ver­si­ty would be the worst thing to hap­pen due to the shut­down. But look­ing back now, more than three months into the shut­down, you real­ize that was only the begin­ning. There were a lot of unin­tend­ed side-effects of the Internet shut­down that nei­ther you nor any­one else saw com­ing at first. 

Welcome to Kill Switch, a pod­cast series brought to you by Access Now, the KeepItOn coali­tion, co-sponsored by Internews, and pro­duced by Volume. I am your host Felicia Anthonio. 

In this six-part series, we want to high­light the trou­bling rise of a new form of anti­de­mo­c­ra­t­ic oppres­sion spread­ing across the world: government-created Internet shut­downs. We will be hear­ing from jour­nal­ists, activists, and experts who have been fight­ing to keep the Internet on, all the way from the high court of Sudan to the rur­al regions of Pakistan. 

In this episode we take a look at what it is like to live through an Internet shut­down. We talk to peo­ple about how these shut­downs impact their lives in small and an expect­ed man­ners, as well as in pro­found life-changing ways. But in places where the Internet is still being blocked, it isn’t so easy for peo­ple to get these sto­ries out. 

One of these sto­ries comes from Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camp was estab­lished in 2017 when Rohingya peo­ple start­ed flee­ing from Myanmar to Bangladesh, try­ing to escape the dis­crim­i­na­tion and geno­ci­dal prac­tices they faced in their home coun­try. This mass human exo­dus result­ed in the world’s largest refugee camp, con­sist­ing of over 900,000 dis­placed refugees. 

Ro Sawyeddollah: My name is Ro Sawyeddollah. I’m 18 years old. I’m liv­ing here as a forcibly-displaced Myanmar nation­al and I work here for the peace and the human rights of my com­mu­ni­ty by found­ing a group of stu­dents named Rohingya Student’s Network. 

Anthonio: Ro is a stu­dent and activists cur­rent­ly shel­ter­ing in the Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camp. He learned to speak English through the Internet, or as he calls it, Google University.” To par­tic­i­pate in this pod­cast, Ro has been send­ing us covert WhatsApp voice notes mes­sages despite the ban on mobile Internet access. 

Sawyeddollah: I’m record­ing this voice note from a shel­ter in Camp 15. Now it’s almost one year since September 2019 the gov­ern­ment banned the acces­si­bil­i­ty of Internet con­nec­tion in the camp. Now it is impos­si­ble to use Internet here in the camp. We can’t even com­mu­ni­cate well by direct phone call every­where in the camp, as the fre­quen­cy of the net­work con­nec­tion in the camp is weak­er than 2G. But I still have a very secret and dif­fi­cult way of using Internet and I don’t want to tell about that way as I’m scared and I want to use it for fight­ing for the peace and the human rights of the peo­ple of my com­mu­ni­ty continuously. 

Anthonio: Since late 2019, the gov­ern­ment of Bangladesh has cut off Internet access to Cox’s Bazar and blocked refugees from obtain­ing SIM cards. 

Sawyeddollah: Hello. The mobile phones of many Rohingya peo­ple were tak­en by the author­i­ties by say­ing Rohingya peo­ple are not allowed to use mobile phones. And accord­ing to the for­eign min­is­ter of Bangladesh, they believe that Internet restric­tion is nec­es­sary for safe­ty and the secu­ri­ty of the Rohingya and the host com­mu­ni­ty. Many of the Rohingya youth can­not [indis­tinct] edu­ca­tion online, as we haven’t a right to edu­ca­tion here in the camp, too. But now even learn­ing from online became impos­si­ble for the Rohingya youth because of not hav­ing Internet. 

Anthonio: Ro told us that when they arrived, they where grate­ful today Bangladeshi gov­ern­ment for giv­ing them shel­ter. They were in no posi­tion to demand Internet acces­si­bil­i­ty. But then, COVID-19 hap­pened. Due to the Internet restric­tions enforced by the gov­ern­ment, aid work­ers and camp staff are unable to effi­cient­ly inform camp res­i­dents about the virus. 

Sawyeddollah: Now lift­ing the Internet restric­tion is very crit­i­cal for both [calls?] to stop also from being the vic­tims of human traf­fick­ing as well as to fight against the pan­dem­ic COVID-19. Once we can have enough infor­ma­tion relat­ed to the COVID-19 our peo­ple could pre­vent them­selves from this pan­dem­ic. There is a Rohingya medic team doing reg­u­lar aware­ness ses­sions in Rohingya lan­guage through social media. Once our peo­ple can [have] access to it, we can learn so much to pre­vent our­selves from this pandemic. 

Anthonio: The first coro­n­avirus case in Cox’s Bazar was record­ed on March 24, 2020. Ro wor­ries that the rate of coro­n­avirus deaths in the Rohingya camps may become the high­est in the world, and no one would real­ly know about it. 

Sawyeddollah: I think def­i­nite­ly I will be affect­ed by COVID-19 soon. I’m sure every Rohingya liv­ing in the camp will be affect­ed by COVID-19 if the sit­u­a­tion of the camp remains con­tin­u­ous­ly as now. So far I know it is not only the prob­lem of Rohingya peo­ple, it is a human [mea­sure?]. Every coun­try, every com­mu­ni­ty is fac­ing this prob­lem as well. But this prob­lem is very dan­ger­ous for Rohingya peo­ple as we are liv­ing in a very over­crowd­ed area. 

Anthonio: Ro and oth­er youths are doing every­thing they can to pro­vide infor­ma­tion about coro­n­avirus to the peo­ple in the camps.

Sawyeddollah: We are giv­ing our full [com­pe­tence?] to edu­cate peo­ple how to pre­vent COVID-19. But bad luck, we haven’t abil­i­ty to reach all the peo­ple due to not hav­ing a faster Internet con­nec­tion in the camp. Sometimes I see a youth work­er also edu­cat­ing Rohingya peo­ple to pre­vent COVID-19, but I’m sor­ry to say that the way they are using it is use­less, too. So I’m request­ing them to inves­ti­gate a quick pro­ce­dure where they can cov­er all the peo­ple with great motivation. 

Anthonio: Ro is also tak­ing action in the lim­it­ed capac­i­ty that he’s able to. Simply by speak­ing to us, get­ting this sto­ry out into the world, Ro is refus­ing to be silenced by the shutdown. 

Sawyeddollah: We sent an open let­ter to the prime min­is­ter of Bangladesh in 15 May 2020. We explained there in the let­ter how and why Internet is impor­tant to us. We also request­ed there to end the Internet restric­tion in camp. But we still do not get any response of our let­ters, so with all of your sup­port, empa­thy, and human­i­ty I’m again humbly request­ing to the [indis­tinct] of Bangladesh, please lift the Internet restric­tion in refugee camps. Thank you very much.

Anthonio: Mambe Churchill lives and works in Cameroon. He is one of the coun­try’s most promis­ing young tech entre­pre­neurs. He’s also com­plete­ly self-taught. Access to the Internet as a teenag­er enabled him to learn how to become a soft­ware engineer. 

Mambe Churchill Nanje: I start­ed get­ting into the tech busi­ness when I was 19. I start­ed as an instruc­tor at the local tech­nol­o­gy insti­tute here in 2004. And that’s where my jour­ney start­ed, and two years lat­er I found­ed my first com­pa­ny which was a tech­nol­o­gy con­sult­ing business. 

Anthonio: A few years into his first busi­ness, Churchill was con­front­ed by one of the biggest prob­lems of the Cameroonian tech industry.

Nanje: I real­ized there was a lack of tal­ent and also the attri­tion rate of tech­ni­cal talent—even when you train them, because back then we had to train the peo­ple we worked with because the local schools were not pro­duc­ing the kind of engi­neers that were required.

Anthonio: But for inno­va­tors like Churchill, prob­lems like these can also be viewed as poten­tial busi­ness opportunities. 

Nanje: I went online because I felt there should be a solu­tion. And I did­n’t find any­thing. I did­n’t find any data­base, I did­n’t find any plat­form like that. So this pushed me to build what every­body now knows to be njorku​.com. So Njorku is an Internet com­pa­ny that seeks to aggre­gate all the human capital-related infor­ma­tion in Africa and make it eas­i­ly acces­si­ble, just like a Google for jobs in Africa and equip­ment and all that. 

Anthonio: Churchill’s opti­mistic and eager self-starter atti­tude reflects the rise of African tech­nol­o­gy in recent years. There is a sweep­ing tech move­ment across the con­ti­nent, with Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa becom­ing lead­ing tech hubs. So too has Churchill’s home town in Cameroon become a hotspot for star­tups, earn­ing the nick­name Silicon Mountain due to its loca­tion in the moun­tain­ous region of the country. 

Nanje: Yeah, it’s a small town. We are on the foot of the moun­tain, so we are ele­vat­ed very like…I don’t know how far up above sea lev­el but yeah, it’s cold here, it’s calm. It has about 300,000 peo­ple, and about 60,000 of them are students. 

Anthonio: These local stu­dents and young grad­u­ates are all hun­gry for the oppor­tu­ni­ties that Africa’s tech move­ment is offering. 

Nanje: So yeah, there are a lot of young peo­ple here that are con­stant­ly learn­ing new things, try­ing new things, start­ing their own com­pa­nies or learn­ing skills and work­ing for com­pa­nies that’re try­ing to make mon­ey online. Cell tech­nol­o­gy and all of that, yeah. 

Anthonio: Churchill explains that it is also due to the rise of the Internet, espe­cial­ly the grow­ing avail­abil­i­ty of afford­able mobile Internet con­nec­tion. Thus Buea has become a hub of innovation.

Nanje: It pushed us to get on the Internet and try to fig­ure out how this thing worked. The good thing is the Internet had a lot of data, infor­ma­tion knowl­edge that we could learn, and then we learned and we start­ed build­ing these tech­nolo­gies around on here. And we end­ed up build­ing an ecosys­tem where young peo­ple are help­ing each oth­er to learn how to build tech­nol­o­gy. To build tech­nol­o­gy, and to sell tech­nol­o­gy and grow together. 

Anthonio: Then one day, amidst all this growth, exchange of ideas, and new eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty, the Internet was switched off. 

Nanje: I was home talk­ing to a uni­ver­si­ty in Germany on my phone, a video call, and it was like 5:00 PM and the call got dis­con­nect­ed. I thought it was the Internet. So I went back, I restart­ed my modem con­nec­tion. But the call con­tin­ued and like five min­utes lat­er I got dis­con­nect­ed again and that was it. 

Anthonio: Protests began in 2016 after the gov­ern­ment appoint­ed Francophone judges in the English-speaking regions of the coun­try. At first, it was the lawyers lead­ing the protest. Then the teach­ers joined them. Then the rest of Anglophone Cameroon. The gov­ern­ment respond­ed to these protests by send­ing secu­ri­ty forces to the region. Within weeks, more than a hun­dred peo­ple had report­ed­ly been arrest­ed. Six were report­ed dead. 

Then in 2017, Anglophone sep­a­ratists declared inde­pen­dence from the nation­al gov­ern­ment. The gov­ern­ment again respond­ed with force, result­ing in more deaths and the arrest of polit­i­cal lead­ers of the sep­a­ratist move­ments To pre­vent fur­ther coor­di­na­tion of protest, the gov­ern­ment decid­ed to flip the kill switch in January 2017.

Nanje: This I remem­ber very well because it’s trau­ma­tiz­ing for me. It made me feel like my whole world, all the hard work I’d put in for over a decade was crash­ing. My staff are all in Buea. My busi­ness depends on the Internet. This investor was com­ing on board. And then, I had some clients abroad and we had to deliv­er with­in a cou­ple of days. So I had to just stay home for two days just try­ing to fig­ure out what to do next.

Anthonio: No one knew just when the Internet would be restored.

Nanje: It just…it was… It came off like it’s indef­i­nite. Which meant I had to leave Buea and go to Douala, which is very very…not so con­ducive to star­tups. It’s like five times more expen­sive to run a start­up in Douala than to run it in Buea. And I had to move to Douala—I thought it would be like a week, or two. If they’d announced they were going to shut it down for five months, I would’ve moved to Douala, maybe rent an apart­ment and move my offices there.

Anthonio: The shut­down last­ed more than 200 days.

Nanje: So yeah, we lost a lot of human and finan­cial cap­i­tal. Yeah, but at the same time we had to sur­vive, so all of this made me feel like all of my plans have gone to the drain with just one switch. Yeah. So I need to rethink and I need to… And it was a very dif­fi­cult and con­fus­ing sit­u­a­tion. Yeah. 

Anthonio: For many busi­ness­es, espe­cial­ly for enter­prise and ecom­merce com­pa­nies, or tech star­tups, the loss of con­nec­tion meant that they had to go into sur­vival mode, or even shut their doors and lay off employees.

Nanje: I just knew that okay, they’re not announc­ing the Internet is com­ing. I don’t know what they mean by they’re sup­port­ing the dig­i­tal ecosys­tem and then they shut down the Internet in the biggest dig­i­tal hub. Yeah, it’s very…when I was in Douala, I was focused on sur­viv­ing. Keep serv­ing my clients. Keep on run­ning the busi­ness. Keep adapt­ing and keep moving. 

Anthonio: The shut­down par­a­lyzed one of Africa’s most active cen­ters of inno­va­tion. The effects were still rip­pling through Buea long after the shut­down ended. 

Nanje: Looking back now, that Internet shut­down and the cri­sis has real­ly affect­ed busi­ness around here, espe­cial­ly talent-based busi­ness­es like ours. You know in tech­nol­o­gy, the key aspects is tal­ent. The com­pa­ny that wins is the one that has the most tal­ent, because you have to build the best soft­ware solu­tion. We lost a lot of great minds. Most of them went to Silicon Valley. Others went to Douala and Yaoundé, but most of them went to Silicon Valley because of course com­pa­nies are look­ing to diver­si­fy their work­force in Silicon Valley, and most of these guys had been doing inter­na­tion­al code chal­lenges. But now with this shut­down and cri­sis, it made the deci­sion easy for them. So they just took the next avail­able flight and moved to the US.

Our com­pa­nies had to strug­gle, but the good thing is most of the founders here are tech­ni­cal. Which means even when it gets to the worst-case sce­nario, they can oper­ate as a one-man busi­ness con­sul­tant. Which is why we are resilient. Like most of the things we do in my com­pa­ny I can do all of them because I’m a tech­ni­cal founder. 

Anthonio: Entrepreneurs like Churchill got where the are by being inno­v­a­tive, inven­tive, and most impor­tant­ly resilient. When a shut­down occurs, peo­ple like Churchill do not sit still and just let it hap­pen to them. 

Nanje: So at some point three months in, myself and Valery Colong of ActivSpaces, we decid­ed to go to a vil­lage on the high­way where the Internet starts. Like when you’re dri­ving and you’re on your phone, there’s no Internet. At a cer­tain point, the Internet comes. So you know where it starts. And it’s a small vil­lage on the high­way to Douala. We went there, and we rent­ed an new office, set up a space there, and then we would just dri­ve every mon­ey for forty min­utes, go there, work and come back. So, we pret­ty much adapt­ed to it, yeah.

Anthonio: In the inter­na­tion­al press, Churchill and his peers became known as the Internet’s Refugees.

Nanje: We would just dri­ve every morn­ing, go there and work the whole day then dri­ve back home. So we adapt­ed and we con­tin­ued to serve our clients, which is the core and the key to business. 

Anthonio: Churchill now looks back at that time as just yet anoth­er strug­gle in the life of a start­up founder. He refus­es to be made a victim. 

Nanje: You know, the [indis­tinct] is entre­pre­neur­ship. It means risk-bearing, because entre­pren­dre is a French word. (We’re lucky that Cameroon is French and English-speaking.) So entre­pren­dre is a French word which means to take risk. To be an entre­pre­neur means you always have to take risks and you always have to adapt and you have to always find a way to keep going, because there is always a way forward. 

Anthonio: In episode one of Kill Switch, we heard from Mishi, who works with Software Freedom Law Center in India, about the exten­sive Internet shut­downs being ordered by the Indian gov­ern­ment. In 2019, they per­pe­trat­ed 121 out of 213 Internet shut­downs record­ed by Access Now. But those liv­ing in the cap­i­tal city of New Delhi rarely expe­ri­ence these shut­downs. We talked to Devdutta, a lawyer and dig­i­tal rights activist liv­ing in the cap­i­tal city. 

Devdutta Mukhopadhyay: My name is Devdutta Mukhopadhyay. That’s quite a mouth­ful, so you can just call me Dev. I’m a lawyer based in New Delhi. I work at a dig­i­tal rights non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion called the Internet Freedom Foundation. 

Anthonio: The Internet Freedom Foundation is an advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion that focus­es both on gov­ern­ment engage­ments as well as public-facing inter­ven­tions around dig­i­tal rights vio­la­tions and Internet shutdowns.

Mukhopadhyay: Our advo­ca­cy around Internet shut­downs dates back to 2018 when we launched a pub­lic cam­paign to which over 16,000 Indians sup­port­ed a peti­tion to the prime min­is­ter of India call­ing for an over­haul of India’s Internet shut­down laws.

Anthonio: Dev explains that thought India has had record-breaking shut­downs in recent years, these rarely hap­pen in the cap­i­tal city.

Mukhopadhyay: Delhi is not a very easy place for the gov­ern­ment to impose Internet shut­downs in. It’s eas­i­er to impose more pro­longed shut­downs in bor­der states or slight­ly more far-flung parts of the coun­try which are more remote and there isn’t that much media scruti­ny or atten­tion by the inter­na­tion­al community. 

Anthonio: While she can only recall a shut­down of a few hours ever hap­pen­ing in New Delhi itself, in oth­er parts of the coun­try the Internet has been off for a much longer time. 

Mukhopadhyay: And that’s the Internet shut­down which is cur­rent­ly ongo­ing in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is on the verge of cross­ing one year on the 5th of August of this year. These Internet restric­tions were first imposed in Jammu and Kashmir on 5th of August of 2019. And at that time, a com­plete com­mu­ni­ca­tion shut­down was imposed and the gov­ern­ment cut off even reg­u­lar phone calls, SMS ser­vices, and land­line services. 

Anthonio: After mul­ti­ple rounds of lit­i­ga­tion, the gov­ern­ment final­ly rein­stat­ed par­tial Internet access. This came in the form of unblocked 2G mobile connection. 

Mukhopadhyay: I mean they hon­est­ly— In 2020 2G Internet speed can’t be con­sid­ered effec­tive Internet access because it does not sup­port video con­fer­enc­ing and so many oth­er facilities. 

Anthonio: Video call­ing has become an essen­tial health­care tool in the region, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the recent COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. Dev and her col­leagues found out how dev­as­tat­ing these shut­downs and slow­downs are through tes­ti­monies by doc­tors from the region. 

Mukhopadhyay: I think there are two major ways in which Internet restric­tions have impact­ed health­care work­ers, based on these con­ver­sa­tions that we’ve had with actu­al doc­tors who are liv­ing and work­ing dur­ing an Internet shut­down in a pandemic. 

First is that health­care can­not be pro­vid­ed through telemed­i­cine if there is an Internet shut­down or an Internet slow­down also. Because at 2G speed, you can’t real­ly see and treat patients because there’s no pos­si­bil­i­ty of video con­fer­enc­ing. During the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic espe­cial­ly, telemed­i­cine has become cru­cial because hos­pi­tals are now these hotbeds of infec­tion, and they are way stretched over capacity. 

Anthonio: Telemedicine refers to the prac­tice of car­ing for patients remote­ly through con­fer­ence call­ing appli­ca­tions. This new prac­tice has not only made health­care more acces­si­ble and afford­able to peo­ple liv­ing in remote regions, but in recent months has also help health work­ers to con­sult with patients who are self-isolating or who have been turned away by over­crowd­ed hospitals. 

Mukhopadhyay: The doc­tors in Jammu and Kashmir have told us that they can­not switch to telemed­i­cine because 2G Internet can­not sup­port video con­fer­enc­ing, and they can­not diag­nose a patient with­out visu­al­ly exam­in­ing them. 

So for instance one doc­tor talked about how patients come to him and say things like, You’re a doc­tor. I have pain in my tum­my.” But the abdom­i­nal cav­i­ty has so many dif­fer­ent organs, and the patients are unable to pin­point exact­ly where they’re hav­ing pain or dis­com­fort. And that’s why it’s so impor­tant for the doc­tor to be able to video con­fer­ence with their patients. 

Anthonio: Slow or non-existent Internet con­nec­tion also pre­vents doc­tors from access­ing infor­ma­tion they need to effec­tive­ly treat their patients. 

Mukhopadhyay: Another major prob­lem the doc­tors have talked about is that they’re unable to access lat­est infor­ma­tion about treat­ment pro­to­cols for COVID and also var­i­ous oth­er dis­eases because of slow Internet speed. So, what ends up hap­pen­ing is that you have doc­tors who are try­ing to you know, treat a very large num­ber of patients in the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic and they’re forced to waste hours try­ing to down­load life-saving infor­ma­tion like ICU guidelines. 

Anthonio: When it comes to health­care, time mat­ters. It can be the dif­fer­ence between life and death.

Mukhopadhyay: Another heart­break­ing sto­ry which has stayed with me is of a young preg­nant woman in Srinagar who lost her baby because junior doc­tors in the hos­pi­tal could not con­tact the senior gyne­col­o­gist when the baby’s heart­beat dropped. This hap­pened some­time in August of last year when even phone calls were blocked, and I think it makes you real­ize how we will nev­er real­ly know how many of these com­plete­ly avoid­able tragedies have been caused by telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion shutdowns. 

Anthonio: The Internet Freedom Foundation, where Dev works, tries to ensure that Indian cit­i­zens can use the Internet freely, as a lib­er­ty guar­an­teed by the con­sti­tu­tion. This lib­er­ty is not only to ensure free­dom of speech but also oth­er human rights impact­ed by a lack of Internet access. 

Mukhopadhyay: I think one of the biggest mis­con­cep­tions is that peo­ple think the Internet is only a medi­um for exer­cis­ing your right to free­dom of speech and expres­sion. But that’s sim­ply not true in the mod­ern age. We con­duct our busi­ness over the Internet now. We teach stu­dents over the Internet. We pro­vide health­care over the Internet. So all of these oth­er fun­da­men­tal human rights are also now intrin­si­cal­ly tied to hav­ing access to the Internet. 

Anthonio: The shut­down in India might not be hap­pen­ing in the cap­i­tal city of Delhi all the time. But they are also not only con­cen­trat­ed in Jammu and Kashmir. They hap­pen from Rajasthan in the west, all the way to West Bengal in the east. 

Mukhopadhyay: I think in the long term, a strat­e­gy like Internet shut­downs is not good for any democ­ra­cy. Because even if it’s hap­pen­ing in states which may be you know, geopo­lit­i­cal­ly sen­si­tive, they may be bor­der states, there may be nation­al secu­ri­ty impli­ca­tions, etc., what hap­pens when you pun­ish an entire soci­ety for maybe the mis­deeds of a few bad apples is that you also cause a lot of resent­ment and anger among the younger peo­ple in that soci­ety. In fact, I don’t know if Internet shut­downs even serve their intend­ed goal of pre­vent­ing vio­lence because there are empir­i­cal stud­ies which demon­strate that Internet shut­downs actu­al­ly incen­tivize those forms of vio­lent protest which require less com­mu­ni­ca­tion and coor­di­na­tion than peace­ful demon­stra­tions. So as a whole it seems to me that Internet shut­downs are quite coun­ter­pro­duc­tive as a strat­e­gy both in the short term and the long term. 

Anthonio: Part of the rea­son the Keep It On coali­tion is doing this pod­cast is to shine a light on these black­outs and allow those affect­ed to tell their sto­ries. But per­haps no one gets frus­trat­ed more by an Internet black­out than jour­nal­ists. After all, it’s their job to report on what’s hap­pen­ing to as wide an audi­ence as possible. 

Ruth Gbatoe: Okay, so my name is Ruth Gbatoe and I work with the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding as pro­gram assistant. 

Anthonio: Ruth’s focus is on advo­cat­ing for the safe­ty of jour­nal­ists and pro­mot­ing free media in a peace­ful and demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety. She’s record­ing from the busy offices of the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding in cen­tral Monrovia, Liberia. Which is why you might hear a lot of bus­tle and even some office music going on in the background.

Gbatoe: We pro­mote free­dom of expres­sion, good gov­er­nance, and we train jour­nal­ists and community-based orga­ni­za­tions. We car­ry out capac­i­ty build­ing and we report as well, and doc­u­ment attacks on jour­nal­ists and also on rights activists. 

Anthonio: In June 2019, Liberia expe­ri­enced its first for­mal Internet shut­down after a group called the Council of Patriots, con­sist­ing of cit­i­zens, activists, oppo­si­tion politi­cians, and stu­dents, orga­nized a peace­ful protest. For the dura­tion of their protest, author­i­ties in Liberia decid­ed to block all social media access, focus­ing on sites like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter.

Gbatoe: And at the shut­down, me and oth­er jour­nal­ists, we could­n’t run our web site, our Facebook pages, and oth­er accounts that we have. 

Anthonio: What makes social media so pow­er­ful is that it allows infor­ma­tion to be instant­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed and shared. The results of a shut­down can thus be very impact­ful if it is done at the per­fect moment. In Liberia, peo­ple around the coun­try could not view or fol­low the protest nor, as in Ruth’s case, could jour­nal­ists report on it as it was happening. 

Gbatoe: It also affect­ed our fol­low­ers on main­ly Facebook because the media out­lets that do Facebook Live about events that are occur­ring in Liberia. So, they now have access to the Facebook plat­form to do that and that great­ly affect­ed them. It also affect­ed those that have con­tent, arti­cles, and have web sites. They could­n’t get these pub­lished as well. It was more like peo­ple could­n’t access infor­ma­tion because we were denied a plat­form to do that. 

Anthonio: Internet access is espe­cial­ly impor­tant for the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding because they work with region­al and inter­na­tion­al partners.

Gbatoe: Yes, we also rely great­ly on the Internet for every­thing that we do, includ­ing pub­li­ca­tion of alerts. Send our alert to IFEX. Also send our alert to Media Foundation for West Africa. And we share with small media. I’ll have it pub­lished on our Twitter account, on our web site, on our Facebook pages. 

Anthonio: As we heard in episode one of this series, a shut­down becomes even more suc­cess­ful when peo­ple do not real­ize that it is actu­al­ly happening.

Gbatoe: Personally, I did­n’t real­ly notice that. I just felt it was some of these reg­u­lar breaks in con­nec­tiv­i­ty. After I’ve heard a lot of peo­ple com­plain­ing about the poor Internet, a few oth­ers who had already down­loaded VPN, I was like…it was new to me. 

Anthonio: For Ruth, this shut­down was total­ly unex­pect­ed and different. 

Gbatoe: And I was shocked. Because I could­n’t fol­low what was ongo­ing, I could­n’t do any­thing, you know? Yeah, at my office I man­age the social media accounts, includ­ing the web site. So I had a sto­ry I had to pub­lish on our web site but that was impos­si­ble. And also one of the means that I com­mu­ni­cate with col­leagues in our office here is through WhatsApp. So I tried get­ting through, and it was impossible. 

Anthonio: Journalists in Liberia are learn­ing to adapt. This social media shut­down has shown them that the gov­ern­ment can flip the kill switch when­ev­er they want. 

Gbatoe: We don’t [indis­tinct] what will hap­pen tomor­row. So what I fore­see here, it might be repeat­ed. It is real­ly wor­ri­some for media free­dom. Set apart from Internet or the black­out on social media, there are also oth­er attacks on the tra­di­tion­al media here. 

Anthonio: The social media shut­down in 2019 was a wor­ry­ing new threat to media free­dom and the lib­er­ties of jour­nal­ists in the region. But fear of future shut­downs or cen­sor­ship can’t keep Ruth and her col­leagues from report­ing sto­ries and fight­ing for media free­dom in the region.

Gbatoe: Right now, um… What I’ll say like, any­thing is pos­si­ble but, we just have to record the facts? I mean, there are oth­er areas, there are oth­er insti­tu­tions that have been report­ing about gov­ern­ment attacks and they’ll go after them. But we have tried as a media devel­op­ment insti­tu­tion to reports the facts. 

Anthonio: Take a sec­ond to imag­ine your day with­out Internet con­nec­tion. I am sure that you will be able to sur­vive. You might even enjoy the break from social media and free­dom from all those emails that you need to respond to. 

Now imag­ine the rest of your week with absolute­ly no Internet con­nec­tion. What about the rest of your month? Many of us take the lit­tle things for grant­ed. The dai­ly mes­sages from loved ones. The enjoy­ment we get from videos, music, or pod­casts. But we also take for grant­ed that our edu­ca­tion, our busi­ness­es, and our jobs all rely on some lev­el of Internet con­nec­tion. I also work remote­ly, and if an Internet shut­down hap­pens in Ghana, I would not be able to com­mu­ni­cate with my col­leagues from around the world. 

When an Internet shut­down hap­pens, peo­ple don’t give in or give up. In the next episode of Kill Switch, we find out how to cir­cum­vent an Internet shut­down, and hear sto­ries about peo­ple find­ing new, inno­v­a­tive ways to get back online. 

For more infor­ma­tion about how to sup­port the KeepItOn coali­tion and our work, vis­it our web site, www​.access​now​.org. This pod­cast was pro­duced by Access Now and Volume, with fund­ing sup­port from Internews. Our music is by Oman Morí. Subscribe wher­ev­er you get your pod­casts, and share as wide­ly as pos­si­ble to help the fight against Internet shut­downs. I am your host Felicia Anthonio, and you have been lis­ten­ing to Kill Switch. Goodbye, and remem­ber to Keep It On.