Electronic communications law: threat or framework for free speech?

Censorship at heart

On Wednesday, November 28, 2018, Senegal’s National Assembly voted, during open session, to pass an electronic telecommunications law.

The law was passed by the Assembly’s deputies, despite numerous denunciations by associations representing civil society. Sixteen of them held a joint press conference in order to warn the public about the dangers of the last paragraph of article 27 that states: “the regulation authority can authorize or impose any measure of traffic management that it judges necessary for, in particular, protecting competition in the telephone communications sector and to safeguard the similar treatment of services.

Through this article, Senegal is committing itself to regulating electronic communications, a domain in which it had very little or almost no influence up to now. If some see a positive initiative in response to numerous degenerating problems on the internet, others see it as a way of ending net neutrality. Which would hinder free expression in a democratic country.

However, these two opinions could find common ground, in that Senegal is prioritarily looking to regulate a highly anarchical domain that is witnessing more and more scandals with each month that passes. The proposed bill was passed in the Ministerial Council on July 6, 2018. The adoption of this law by the National Assembly could limit access to certain applications that are used on a daily basis by the Senegalese: WhatsApp, Messenger, Facebook, Skype, etc.

Beyond free speech, the greatest fear for civil society is above all that the law will have an impact on the digital economy, which occupies a growing place in Senegal’s GDP. Senegalese internet users didn’t hesitate to highlight this last point, to the extent that the government decided to triple the budget planned for internet startups. This budget will triple from 1 to 3 billion in funding for the General Delegation for Rapid Entrepreneurship (DER).

A question of interest

With the passage of this law, consumers fear that regulation authorities will allow internet providers to slow or block the flow of data in order to protect their own interests. In addition, the law could make it easier to create an internet with two different speeds and a categorization of internet speed according to customers’ profiles. This would be against the Senegalese Constitution, which presupposes a citizen’s right to information and communication. We are thus facing a law that is against the interests of the Senegalese.

A look back at the long process of warning against idle internet roamers

For more than a year, Senegal’s Head of State, his excellence Macky Sall, increased his communications about the necessity for controlling social media. He even takes it out regularly on social media users themselves. We remember his phrase “those who have nothing to do and who are idly roaming the internet” when speaking about Senegalese citizens who were protesting the fact that the only radiotherapy machine in Senegal had broken down, endangering the lives of people sick with cancer. This declaration was the birth of a new hashtag #OisifsErrants (Idle Roamers).

At the awards ceremony for the “general competition” (exam that awards the highest-performing students in Senegal), President Sall said “it is necessary to institute a relevant governing system for educational digital resources, in order to cancel out the bad side effects and the dangers of their failings. This is why it is crucial to organize strategic collective and permanent safeguards that counteract fake news and other false and malevolent information. The internet is being sabotaged by these bad practices.” It was the same message at the last Grand Magal of Touba, where he said that “those who create degenerative problems on the internet will be identified, found, arrested and persecuted.”

Again, more recently, in his inaugural address to the Forum for Peace and Security in Dakar he spoke of “the issue of internet surveillance and the repression of certain uses. It is worth directly proposing it, because cyber criminality is becoming a destructive weapon for society and its core values. Safeguards are needed.”

These words from the president of the Republic of Senegal echo the justice department, which on its side has already put multiple reforms of the penal code and the criminal procedure code into practice. Specifically, one can cite the case of journalist, Ouleye Mané, who was prosecuted for having sent a caricature of the president to a WahtsApp group or the singer Amy Colé Dieng, close to the opposition, who is also being prosecuted for having sent a voice message over WhatsApp in which she called President Sall a “gecko” (a common term in Senegal to designate a crook or a hustler). Both of them have been let out on bail and are awaiting their trials. There are two other young men who have been in prison for the past 3 years, without a formal ruling, for Facebook comments that were considered to have been advocating terrorism.

Let’s do the same as everyone else: let’s cut

Senegal has always been painted as an example for organizing peaceful elections in the past few decades. The role of the media during these electoral periods has also been recognized. Since 2012, social media has become an inescapable platform for bringing attention to issues, mobilizing people, monitoring and sharing information. Today, with this legislation relative to the telecommunications code and more specifically the last paragraph of article 27, Senegal joins the cohort of African countries where censorship reigns.

It must be noted that the past few years, African countries have been competing for internet censorship. In some countries, internet outages have become commonplace. If, for some, the outages come on the day before an election or at the same moment that mass protests are taking place, as in Gambia or Mali or Chad… and for others the choice was made to legislate for restrained access. As was the case in Uganda, where a new tax was placed on social media, and in Tanzania where bloggers are now forced to pay a $900 US dollar tax per year to have a blogging licence. Kenya and Zambia are also on their way to adopting new taxes. Benin already put a tax in place, before it decided to erase it. In Egypt, all Twitter accounts or Facebook pages with more than 5,000 followers must be declared to the Media Regulation Authority. Today, thus, say goodbye to arrestations, disparitions or assassinations of cyberactivists and bloggers. The time has come for “regulation”, another word for censorship.

The need to rationalize internet use

Recently, a handful of initiatives were created in order to bring people’s attention to the various uses of the internet. Among these, we have “Netattitude,” a platform that regroups several bloggers and people passionate about digital tools who are concerned about the potential uses of social media; in Senegal the most used are Whatsapp and Facebook. However, their activities have their own limits, if you believe the various scandals that were brought to light these past few months: public exchanges of insults, content sharing that is sexual in nature, caricatures of high political or religious authorities, etc.

In this context, a legislature is the only body invested with the power to find an appropriate judicial framework for developing “virtuous behavior” on the internet.

For this to happen, the law’s goal must be to pose a framework and to repress usage, if needed, by targeting certain practices, but not to withhold from citizens their fundamental liberty, guaranteed by the constitution.

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