[OPINION] African governments and internet freedoms

Is access to the internet a right or a privilege? The same question might be asked of international travel.

Governments are able to control both of these. Embarrassed at denying access to them by political foes, they justify their repressive action by saying the ability to get onto the internet or to cross borders is a privilege.

Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution promoting and protecting the right of users to get online. It urged countries to enshrine this in their local law.

No fewer than 11 African countries responded, as it were, by instructing the providers to switch off the internet.

The companies refuse to talk about this, save to say that their licensing agreements stipulate governments’ right to order them to close down access.

The governments have learned the lesson from the Arab Spring five years ago where demonstrations were directed by the internet.

The protestors turned out in droves having been summoned by what they had learned online.

And that was years before the more efficient and infinitely wider-reaching Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp we know today.

The real game changer, of course, is social media. That simply cannot be silenced.

It is very foolish of governments to think they control things simply by making PC and smartphone screens go blank.

Gambia's Yayha Jammeh shut down the internet before the election he lost in December last year.

Thanks to decisive action by the Economic Community of West African States it did not stop him being forced to accept defeat and go into exile.

Currently, Cameroon has instructed service providers to cut off the internet to 20% of the country where English-speaking citizens complain they are being bullied and marginalised by the French-speaking majority.

Activists are angry with the telephone companies, who are the internet service providers, for complying with government directives.

They say being a service provider is about more than profit and providing faster internet.

I felt a sense of deja vu, going back to South African newspapers during the apartheid era.

The anti-apartheid lobby argued that by succumbing to Pretoria’s repressive media laws, we were playing into the hands of the repressive regime.

The idealists then and their contemporaries now have difficulty in accepting that operating in the mainstream media is a business. That is necessarily accompanied by a raft of responsibilities.

Above all, it requires staying alive to do what businesses do: make a profit for owners and shareholders.

True, we did have to comply with many of the laws. One editor likened his job at the time to walking blindfolded through a minefield.

But we should be given some credit for ingenuity.

By coming out daily, we were able to drive a coach and horses through some of the more repressive measures imposed by the apartheid regime and in so doing, play a significant role in bringing down the evil system.

Surely we should allow today’s internet service providers similar space?

Jean-Jacques Cornish is an Africa correspondent at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @jjcornish