Felicia Anthonio: The Internet shutdown is not about you. It’s not targeted at you. The Internet shutdown is really about the protesters. Amid the cloud of tear gas in the streets, retreating from a volley of stinging rubber bullets, are the real targets of the shutdown. Now that their mobile phones aren’t connected, they can’t regroup, organize, and reassess their rights. And they can’t document or report on how the security forces are switching from rubber bullets to live ammunition. They can’t tell the world that they are about to be slaughtered. And they can’t ask for help. The government knows that the Internet shutdown will help them get away with the brutality and human rights violations taking place in this information blackout. Or at least they are hoping it will.
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.
We want to start this episode by acknowledging the Internet shutdown that started in Belarus a week before recording this. The presidential election of Belarus was scheduled to take place on the 9th of August 2020. When incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko won for a fifth term, having held power since 1994, protesters took to the streets of Minsk.
Security forces began using tear gas and stun grenades on protesters. And leading up to the election, countless journalists, critics, bloggers, and opposition leaders were arrested. We can only assume that the government anticipated this kind of reaction to the election. Because as polling stations closed that Sunday, the country started experiencing targeted Internet disruptions.
In response to the shutdown, more than fifty human rights organizations, including Access Now, signed an open letter condemning the government’s actions. The letter cited a number of international articles and resolutions from the European Court of Human Rights, the United Nations, and others in support of its central argument. As the letter’s opening lines read,
such disruptions are impermissible under international human rights law.
This is the argument that we are making in this episode of Kill Switch as well. We talked to a journalist, an activist, and a human rights researcher about the various ways in which Internet shutdowns and human rights violations intersect.
The shutdown in Belarus follows right on the heels of the recent shutdown in Ethiopia that started in June 2020 as we were recording episode 1 of this podcast series. The Ethiopian government’s long history of Internet shutdowns and human rights violations can perhaps give us a better understanding of how these issues interrelate. We talked to Fisseha Tekle, an Amnesty International researcher in Ethiopia. Amnesty International is involved in legal reforms in an attempt to bring some of the country’s historically problematic laws in line with international human rights standards.
Fisseha Tekle: The human rights situation in Ethiopia has seen some improvements since 2018. And we can characterize those improvements as remarkable since we saw the release of thousands of opposition leaders and members, as well as journalists and bloggers. The government was also revising laws that were instrumental in silencing dissent and opposition.
Anthonio: Despite these reforms, there are still instances of reported intercommunal violence and human rights violations in the country. In 2019 for example, security forces committed horrendous acts of brutality and intimidation in Amhara and Oromia, resulting in killings, destruction of property, and civilian displacements, according to Amnesty International.
Tekle: Amnesty International has documented the law enforcement measures by the government security forces. Their intercommunal violence and armed incursions have resulted in a number of extrajudicial executions and arbitrary mass arrests, torture, and ill treatment, amongst others.
Anthonio: Fisseha says that a big problem regarding human rights violations in Ethiopia is the lack of proper documentation and reporting.
Tekle: Moreover, the problem of pervasive impunity for grave human rights violations has continued, as many past and recent human rights violations remain unaccounted for through independent and credible investigation. Instead, the government has resorted to their old habit of clamping down opposition, using the pretext of law enforcement in the face of mounting violence and security deterioration.
Anthonio: Along with this track record of human rights violations and lack of accountability, the government of Ethiopia has become overly reliant on hitting the kill switch. These Internet shutdowns limit the ability of human rights workers to respond to, document, and report human rights violations.
Tekle: The Internet shutdowns that usually happen hand-in-hand with weak mobile connectivity affect the [indistinct] of human rights defenders who have a critical role in documenting human rights violations in the context of unrest. For instance, the full magnitude of violence that happened in the wake of the killing of artist Hachalu Hundessa on the 29th of July this year is yet to come out due to the extent of the county-wide Internet shutdown.
Anthonio: Human rights workers have come to rely heavily on Internet connection to do their work effectively.
Tekle: It enables or facilitates the compiling of human rights violations as they happen. And getting that information in real-time is critical for the credibility of the evidence.
Anthonio: Most human rights research and reporting relies on testimonies from actual victims or witnesses of human rights violations. Because of this, getting information out quickly is crucial.
Tekle: The veracity of the testimony relies on the time gap between the event of the violation and the time of providing the testimony. Equally, the Internet is instrumental to access additional audiovisual evidence before they are tampered or doctored to feed the narratives of different interest groups.
Anthonio: And lastly, timely reporting also contributes to stopping abusive acts as they happen.
Tekle: Real-time human rights research is critical in mitigating the impact of violations by enabling interventions to stop the violations and also to provide timely human rights support.
Anthonio: There is also another deliberate reason why these Internet shutdowns are orchestrated. In certain contexts, the government benefits from the inability of human rights workers to document government actions.
Tekle: Prior to 2018, the Ethiopian government used to shut down the Internet or limit access to the Internet for the purpose of covering up human rights violations. The stated purpose of the latest Internet shutdown in Ethiopia has been that it is for national security. We cannot be certain that the reason for the Internet shutdown was cover up human rights violations. Yet, we are certain that arbitrary Internet shutdowns delay access to information related to human rights violations.
Anthonio: But despite all of this, Fisseha reminds us that Internet access itself is also a human right in many ways.
Tekle: As arbitrary as they are, the shutdowns constitute human rights violations by themselves, affecting people’s right to freedom of expression and access to information. This is without mentioning the lost livelihoods and opportunities due to the Internet shutdown.
Anthonio: Amnesty International does a lot of work related to human rights in a digital context, putting the same rigor and research behind this issue as any other.
Tekle: At Amnesty International, we place a high importance on digital rights, including access to Internet. Hence we have a team dedicated to monitoring and researching the state of access to Internet. Country researchers also work with digital rights teams to research, advocate, and campaign on this specific issue.
Anthonio: Their work includes collaborating with tech companies to promote Internet access and digital rights.
Tekle: For instance in 2016 Amnesty International published a joint report with OONI.
Anthonio: We talked to Maria Xynou from OONI in the previous episode of Kill Switch and heard all about how they collect and document network disruption data.
Tekle: And the title of that report was Ethiopia Offline: Evidence of Social Media Blocking.
Anthonio: In that report, they investigated and reported on how the government has been deliberately curtailing access to social media sites and WhatsApp. Luckily, there are people like Fisseha embedded in Ethiopia and other countries. They make sure that despite shutdowns, the truth comes out in the end.
Tekle: The intent or purpose of the shutdown is to frustrate evidence-collection efforts of human rights organizations, or to block that part of the problem. But usually, the shutdowns have never solved that problem. The information will come out, one way or the other.
Anthonio: Yvonne Ng is an audiovisual archivist with the international organization Witness. Her work is specifically centered on the documentation of human rights violations using mobile phones.
Yvonne Ng: Documenting human rights violations is always important for capturing evidence of abuses so that they can be used in advocacy efforts, in investigations, in prosecutions. And for amplifying the stories and experiences of people that may counter the dominant narratives or mistruths. In the context of an Internet shutdown, documentation becomes even more important, since shutdowns often occur in the context of heightened repression and violence, of other human rights abuses, and during periods of political instability such as protests or elections. So documentation of what is really happening on the ground is very important. Even if that documentation can’t be shared in real-time in the moment, it can be a way to preserve that information and those voices that authorities are actively trying to silence so that they can be used later on.
Anthonio: Witness’ main focus is on video media. They train and support civilians and activists on how to collect, manage, and preserve mobile video documentation of human rights issues around the world.
Ng: Well, video is the focus of the work that we do because we feel like it is a very accessible tool for activists and ordinary people to use to document human rights abuses. You know, video is available to everybody on their phones that they carry with them at all hours of the day so it’s like, ready at hand and you can pull it out and you can document what’s going on around you without any special additional tools or training.
Anthonio: The audiovisual nature of video reaches people in ways that written statements simply cannot. It makes an immediate, visceral connection.
Ng: I think an example of video evidence that people in the United States and globally are very aware of is all of the videos showing police violence, particularly most recently and visibly with George Floyd. We’ve seen how those videos have exposed systemic abuse by the police against black communities and made that issue so visible and so believable to many people who had maybe never known that it was an issue or had never witnessed this kind of abuse themselves. And we see how those videos have really shaped global understanding of the issue of police violence.
Anthonio: Now, imagine the US government decided to block social media access during the recent protests. How much of the violence following the killing of George Floyd would have gone unseen, unreported, and forgotten. Or, think of the footage that has come out of the protests in Hong Kong. Around the world, governments have realized that the Internet and social media shutdowns can help them contain the spread of such powerful imagery. Remember in episode 1 of Kill Switch, we mentioned how slowing down the Internet to 2G connection is deliberately done to stop people from being able to upload multimedia content such as videos.
Ng: We’ve seen in recent years how documentation recorded by ordinary people, by citizens who are witnessing abuses going on around them, has you know, just exploded. And the way that this information often getting out is via social media or closed chat apps such as WhatsApp. So this is where a lot of this documentation is being shared, and where it’s being accessed by advocates, by investigators. So, in the case of an Internet shutdown, those services are not available, so the information can’t get out.
Anthonio: On the Witness web site, at blog.witness.org, you can find their guidelines for documenting human rights violations with video during Internet shutdowns.
Ng: So, our guidance was developed from the challenges and the advice that we were hearing from activists who were working in a shutdown context. And also from our background and expertise in video documentation.
Anthonio: You might think it is as easy as pointing your camera and hitting record, or making sure you are in landscape mode. But during a human rights crisis, recording videos becomes risky, and preserving them becomes difficult.
Ng: So there are steps you can take to help you continue to document, with video, in spite of the specific challenges posed by Internet shutdowns. Which include, as I mentioned, heightened security risks, the inability to rely on certain secure forms of communication such as end-to-end encrypted chat, for instance. You know of course there’s technological impediments when there’s an Internet shutdown that prevent you from sending videos to other people, or using cloud backup, or sending it off-site for safe keeping.
Anthonio: When you are documenting human rights violations, there are also things that you can do to make sure that your video helps human rights workers.
Ng: We have guidance on how people can film and handle their video so that it’s more easily verifiable later on by others. We also have guidance on how you can maintain and back up your video documentation, even if you don’t have Internet, and even if you don’t have a computer. And finally, we have guidance on how you can still share files and how you might still be able to communicate in perhaps more limited ways even during an Internet shutdown.
Anthonio: You want to make sure your video is easy to authenticate and difficult to be dismissed by government officials. The rise of synthetic media, such as deepfakes for example, has created a new obstacle for authentic documentation and provides a potential get out of jail free card to those making claims of fake news.
Ng: Metadata essentially means data about data. So, in the case of video documentation it’s information that describes your video, such as the time and date that you recorded it, or the location that you were in when you recorded it. And metadata is important for authenticating and verifying your video. In other words demonstrating that your video is genuine and hasn’t been manipulated and actually reflects the incident that it claims to be a recording of.
Anthonio: Metadata is essential to recording human rights violations in more than one way.
Ng: I mean, metadata is essential for your video file to even function, first of all. But you know, metadata is key for people to even identify and understand what’s going on in the video. Like if you had a video that had no time, date, or location information attached to it, you wouldn’t even know what it’s showing.
Anthonio: Video recording apps usually generate metadata for the file itself. But oftentimes, there are additional measures that you can take to support the authenticity of your video’s metadata.
Ng: Metadata in some cases is automatically generated by your phone and embedded into the video file, or generated by an app and embedded in your video file. It can also be recorded separately. And it can be manually created by you. Like it could be a hand-written note that you write. It could be a separate voice note that you record that includes a description, or people’s names, or any other information that describes what’s going on in your video.
Anthonio: A shutdown also means that no one can livestream events or get videos published online at the time of a crisis. So keeping your video safe and protected becomes crucial.
Ng: So that could mean getting yourself a wifi thumbdrive that can connect directly to your phone without a computer. Or an OTG drive, which stands for “on the go” drive, which plugs directly into your Android phone and also does not require a computer. And then you can offload your videos onto that drive so that you have a backup copy.
Anthonio: Part of Witness’ guide is to help people keep recordings safe until that time in which they can release the videos.
Ng: We’ve heard of examples of devices being confiscated. We’ve also heard about devices just being checked. And people you know, putting themselves at personal risk for having documentation on their phones. So, we also have advice on how people can make their phones more secure so that if your phone is confiscated, your documentation is perhaps more well-hidden or harder to access.
Anthonio: What all of these technical, practical, and safety recommendations come down to is really having video documentation that can make a difference.
Ng: At Witness, we always say that you know, more video doesn’t necessarily mean more rights.
Anthonio: You can have as much documentation in the world as possible, but for it to make a difference it needs to be usable. And in the end, used by human rights advocates, lawyers, and organizations.
Ng: In the case of documenting during Internet shutdowns, even though people can’t share in the moment, ultimately there has to be a place for this documentation to go. For somebody to use this documentation. So you know, I think there is a really important role for organizations like Witness, or organizations that do local advocacy or advocacy internationally, to seek out this documentation and to provide ways for documenters to securely get that information out to them.
Anthonio: For our last story, we return to Ethiopia to see what it is like on the ground for everyday reporters. They are, after all, often the ones to first investigate, document, and share human rights violations when they occur. Tom Gardner has been living and working in Ethiopia for a long time. He is the Ethiopian correspondent for The Economist magazine. Even with his ear always to the ground, the most recent shutdown in Ethiopia took him by surprise.
Tom Gardner: I mean, I didn’t see it coming. I think I’m certainly used to Internet shutdowns now in Ethiopia. I’ve been here four years and I’ve had many—probably you know, approaching ten if you include non-comprehensive nationwide ones but just regional ones.
Anthonio: As we already heard from Yvonne and Fisseha, Internet shutdowns never happen in a vacuum.
Gardner: I didn’t see this political crisis coming, which is what triggered the shutdown. It was the murder of a popular Ethiopian pop singer called Hachalu Hundessa. This was on the night of 29th of June. I woke up the next morning—I’d gone to bed before hearing about any of this. But by the time I woke up in the morning I was getting WhatsApp messages, messages on social media what was happening, which was there were protests around Addis Ababa, there was big crowds of people from outside of Addis Ababa, marching into the city as part of a protest which quite quickly turned violent. So there was a whole lot going on. The Internet was shut down at about 9 AM on the 30th of June. So I’d been awake for about a couple of hours before everything stopped, in terms of our communications.
Anthonio: But as he has already mentioned, Tom is used to these shutdowns. He has a few tricks up his sleeve.
Gardner: I was able to get a little bits of connection sitting in my car outside the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa compound in Addis. I sat outside that for a few minutes before being moved along by security. I was able to get on their Internet where they had a satellite connection. For a couple of days I was able to do that. So that made it a bit easier in terms of just filing my stories.
Anthonio: Despite being able to temporarily gets on the UN’s wifi, during an Internet shutdown journalists usually have to employ other old-school techniques to continue reporting.
Gardner: You kind of return to the journalism, or the reporting techniques of you know, another era. You have to phone in, read out, dictate the article over the phone, just to get the basic numbers—number of dead for example in the recent protests. Often these things just come out online on the newswires: BBC, Reuters, or whatever. It’s pretty slow, it’s pretty frustrating.
Anthonio: In the past, when the kill switch had not yet become such a technically-sophisticated tool, journalists like Tom could report with what amounted to a slight inconvenience.
Gardner: I arrived in Ethiopia in October 2016 and the morning I arrived was the start of a shutdown. Because there was another political crisis on the very day I arrived. So I arrived and there’s no mobile Internet at all. They did have wifi, landline—there was still Internet in hotels. So it was frustrating, it was difficult, but I could still do my work. As the years have gone on, I feel they have become much more comprehensive.
Anthonio: But now, things are more difficult. And getting stories out in a fast-paced media environment while a shutdown is happening becomes essential.
Gardner: You know, working with people who write for the wires, for Reuters, AFP, and AP, it’s really important first of all for combating misinformation and fake news. Because if the reporting is essentially being done by people overseas who are not in the country, who are going off very vague snippets of information they might have seen online or from a couple of calls they’ve managed to make to the country, a lot of you know, misinformation circulates very quickly, and that happened this time around.
Anthonio: Ironically, the recent shutdown in Ethiopia was itself justified by the government as an attempt to prevent fake news from spreading.
Gardner: Yeah, I remember speaking to a colleague at one of the wire agencies who got calls from his editors in Nairobi saying, “This person has tweeted that this is happening in Addis Ababa and everyone—you know, all the news agencies reporting it.” It wasn’t correct. I mean it was essentially misinformation about what was what was going on in Addis Ababa. So I think it’s really important to be able to have journalists on the ground to be able to correct misinformation and also to be online and making sure that the facts are getting out there as quickly as possible.
Anthonio: For international reporters in particular, social media is becoming a crucial tool for connecting with local news agencies and reporters.
Gardner: I find particularly being alerted to reports in local media and local language media…if I’m not online or on social media specifically I’m unlikely to come across them. That’s a pretty important source of information. And you know, a lot of the most important local reporting is being done by these services and local language services, and I need to be able to just see what they’re saying.
Anthonio: But social media doesn’t just help reporters get access to local news. It is also about finding the stories happening in the far-flung corners of a country.
Gardner: It’s also just an enormous country with very limited press coverage of what is happening in distant, kind of peripheral areas, which also happened to be areas where you are most likely to see human rights abuses, killings by security forces, or arrests or beatings or whatever. There are simply not enough journalists, local or otherwise, who are in these areas and able to report on them. So social media and citizen journalism is really important.
Anthonio: These are often the videos that Yvonne talked about. Well-documented human rights violations can be used as evidence by journalists to build factual and impactful stories.
Gardner: Earlier this year a regionally-specific shutdown in western Ethiopia and western Oromia…that was clearly to disrupt rebel activity and also to prevent videos, photos, of the human rights abuses which were going on, and are going on in that part of the country from reaching the outside world. And that was clear.
Anthonio: There is another issue we haven’t mentioned yet. And that is journalists and human rights workers are also placed in danger because of the lack of communication available to them.
Gardner: These shutdowns…not always, but almost always, occur in the context of serious political unrest. Not just for me but for many people, Ethiopians with family and friends abroad, myself with family and friends abroad, it is very worrying. They can’t check in on you, it’s hard to— You know, they don’t know what’s going on. They aren’t able to get in touch easily to check that you’re safe. That is obviously a problem. I went to western Ethiopia earlier this year, where there was a three-month regional blackout, essentially. And that was worrying not just for people back home but for even friends in Addis who were not—you know, who can’t check in on you so easily, check in on me so easily. In that particular instance there was also no text or phone calls in this town, so people even in Addis were not able to contact me.
Anthonio: Talking to Tom, it is clear that despite all the shutdowns that he has experienced, it is still something that makes him uneasy.
Gardner: You feel very disconnected from the world. It’s kind of a—it’s a strange sensation to know that the rest of the world is online and you’re in this kind of black hole. You know, these are the moments… The Internet shutdowns come at a time where, clearly, by definition there is news going on. You’re at your busiest. And yeah, it makes things a lot trickier.
Anthonio: Internet access can itself be regarded as an enabler of human rights, connected to freedom of expression and freedom of information. As we have heard throughout this series, it is also integrally connected to other human rights, including access to healthcare, education, as well as the right to live, and freedom from unfair detainment.
In the last episode of Kill Switch, which will be released next week, we take a look at the future of the fight against Internet shutdowns.
For more information about how to support the KeepItOn coalition and our work, visit our web site, www.accessnow.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.