What Togo Teaches Us About The Importance Of The Internet As A Tool of Protest

In a case which was heard before the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States, the ECOWAS Court ruled that the 2017 internet shutdown in Togo was illegal. One of the things which the ECOWAS court held was that the interference with access to the internet was also an interference to freedom of expression.

Access to internet is not stricto senso a fundamental human right but since internet service provides a platform to enhance the exercise of freedom of expression, it then becomes a derivative right that it is a component to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. It is a vehicle that provides a platform that will enhance the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression. Right to internet access is closely linked to the right of freedom of speech which can be seen to encompass freedom of expression as well. Since access to internet is complementary to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression, it is necessary that access to internet and the right to freedom of expression be deemed to be an integral part of human right that requires protection by law and makes its violation actionable. In this regards, access to internet being a derivative right and at the same time component part of each other, should be jointly treated as an element of human right to which states are under obligation to provide protection for in accordance with the law just in the same way as the right to freedom of expression is protected. Against this background, access to internet should be seen as a right that requires protection of the law and any interference with it has to be provided for by the law specifying the grounds for such interference.

The ECOWAS court ordered the Togolese government to pay 2,000,000.00 CFA as compensation for the violation of their right to freedom of expression. What is significant about this ruling is that the ECOWAS court held that infringing on the internet access of the citizenry was an infringement on the right to freedom of speech of the Togolese people. Freedom of expression is a right which is guaranteed in article 25 of Togo’s Constitution — a fact which come up in the ECOWAS court case. This is a freedom which the dictatorship in Togo has never truly intended the Togolese people to enjoy, however.

Shutting down the internet as a means of suppressing the freedom of expression is just one aspect of the ways in which the government of Togo has used the internet as a weapon against freedom of expression in Togo. The complete shutdown of the internet was a very direct way to stifle freedom of expression in Togo by denying citizens access to the internet as a means to express their dissatisfaction with the dictatorship. Another method which the Togolese government has employed to suppress freedom of expression has been digital spying on activists. Several activists have been arrested and tortured based on private conversations which took place on WhatsApp, which is supposed to be a secure encrypted messaging app. Actions such as this not only violate freedom of expression, but it also infringes on the right to privacy, which is mentioned in Article 28. Digital spying is not as direct as an outright shutdown of the internet, but in some ways it is more insidious because the activists who are being spied on are often unaware that they are being spied on until they are arrested.

The dictatorship in Togo understands very clearly that its survival relies on continuing to suppress the voice of the Togolese people. The internet has proven to be a very effective tool for Togolese activists who have been able to use it to denounce the regime while also protecting the anonymity of the activists involved, until the government of Togo began its campaign of spying on activists. The internet has also allowed Togolese activists to expose the government of Togo in ways which would have been difficult to do in the past. Since 2017, the dictatorship in Togo has come under a greater level of international scrutiny and condemnation than it has ever faced before, and its attempts to repress the voices of the Togolese people who are demanding their freedom has only further exposed the dictatorship in Togo to greater condemnation.

As Togolese activist Farida Nabourema explained, the internet shutdown in Togo was something which activists in Togo were able to use to their advantage because it allowed the activists to control the narrative about what was happening in Togo during the shutdown and the government was unable to respond. Years after the 2017 shutdown, and despite the various attempts that the government of Togo has made to suppress Togolese activists, the internet still remains a powerful tool which is being used to expose the Togolese dictatorship. This exposure has helped to undermine the legitimacy which the dictatorship in Togo has relied on over the years by exposing the fact that the government of Togo is not as democratic as it would have the international community believe.

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Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.