Internet shutdowns and the right to access in Sudan: A post-revolution perspective

A cell phone vendor in Khartoum, Sudan, September 16, 2012. Photo by joepyrek via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

On 3 September, a Sudanese court ordered telecommunications companies Sudani and MTN to apologize to their customers for disrupting access to their networks at the behest of the military authorities in early June. 

The shutdown, which went on for weeks, was the longest in Sudan. The Transitional Military Council, which at the time was the de-facto ruler of the country, said it ordered the internet blackout because of security concerns.

However, the blackout was an obvious attempt by the council to disrupt the sharing of footage and information pertaining to the dispersal of a sit-in on 3 June by security and military forces, calling for a civilian-led transitional government. More than 100 protesters were killed as a result of the crackdown on the sit-in. 

Protesters and activists used their mobile phones to document and share the human rights violations and killings committed during the Khartoum massacre. The blackout greatly restricted Sudanese people’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information, and their right to assembly, since social media platforms and apps like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter were widely used to organise protests.

Sudan telecommunication market

There are four telecommunications service providers in Sudan. Zain Sudan, a subsidiary of the Kuwaiti multinational group Zain, is the biggest player with a 48 percent market share. The other players are MTN Sudan, a subsidiary of South African multinational group MTN, Sudani, which is controlled by the government and CANAR.

The Telecommunications and Post Regulatory Authority is the regulator of the telecommunications industry. It is in charge of issuing new licenses, setting internet fees and content blocking.

The shutdown, which affected both mobile and fixed-line connections, and took place on the networks of all providers and was lifted five weeks later.

Justice served?

The 3 September court ruling ordered Sudani and MTN to publish their apologies to customers on the front pages of all newspapers that are published in the capital, Khartoum. It is the latest court decision favouring users’ right to access the internet in response to the June shutdown. 

The same court had previously ruled in favour of Mr. Abdel-Adheem Hassan, a prominent Sudanese lawyer, who filed a legal case against Zain, the largest telecommunications operator in Sudan, for the June shutdown. The court forced Zain to restore internet access three weeks after the shutdown started, but only to Hassan. Another case representing a larger number of customers had since been filed and on July 9, the same court ordered all providers to restore access to the internet.

These court decisions serve justice for one-third of the Sudanese citizens who have access to the internet, by granting them the right to sue telecommunication providers and seek a remedy. 

These decisions also established that while providers may be required by law to shut down access to their networks, they still have responsibilities toward their users, including transparency. The process used to shut down the internet shows aspects of corruption and a lack of transparency between internet providers and the government. A previous court ruling found that “Zain had been verbally ordered by ‘high authorities’” to shut down the internet after it failed to provide the court with written orders.

Shutdowns in Sudan

Internet shutdowns are not unheard of in Sudan. The military regime, headed by ex-president Omar al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan for thirty years before he was deposed by a massive peaceful revolution earlier this year, deployed the tactics of shutting down or throttling access to the internet as a tool to silence and oppress protestors. In September 2013, the government completely shut down the internet for 24 hours, as a measure against the spreading of peaceful protests following the regime’s decision to lift state subsidies from basic food items and fuel. In June of the same year, the government also resorted to slowing down and shutting down internet connections because of protests.

Contradictory legislation

The court rulings represent a serious step toward a freer and fully transparent debate and actions to guarantee Sudanese’ right to access the internet, as the country embarks on a three-year-long transition toward civilian and democratic rule.

Sudan’s transition

On August 21, Abdallah Hamdouk was appointed as prime minister and the members of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan were sworn in, as part of a power-sharing agreement to guide Sudan’s three-year transition toward civilian rule, in accordance with the Constitutional Charter for the 2019 Transitional Period

The charter, signed by the Transitional Military Council and the political coalition that represents the protesters, Forces of Freedom and Change, repealed the Transitional Constitution of Sudan of 2005.

The right to access, or (freedom to connect and right to broadband) has been recognized by many international bodies as a fundamental human right. The World Summit on the Information Society ( WSIS), that took place in 2003 in Geneva, Switzerland, and in 2005 in Tunis, Tunisia, acknowledged  the internet as “central to the information society’’ and that “everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the information society offers.” Also, in July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution by consensus that condemned internet shutdowns

Sudanese laws, however, seem contradicted and not consistent with regard to freedom of expression and information online and the right to access communication networks. Some laws cherish these rights, even under the ousted regime of al-Bashir. For example, both the Sudanese Access to Information Act and  Article 39 (1) of the 2005 Sudan Interim Constitution — which was recently repealed — enshrined the right to receive and disseminate information. Article 9 of the Computer Crimes Act of 2007 prescribes a punishment of two years in prison or fine or both against anyone convicted of impeding access to internet services.

On the other hand, the 2018 Telecommunication and Post regulation Act gives the regulatory authority the right to disrupt any communication and telecommunication or broadcasting station if it violates the law. This vague provision does not provide more details, which allows the authorities to interpret it as they see fit to restrict access to services.

Moreover, Article 56 of the Constitutional Charter for the 2019 Transitional Period enshrined the ‘’right to access the internet, without prejudice to public order, safety, and morals, as defined by the law”. The charter, however, did not delineate on these vague exemptions. 

If not amended or abolished, these vague and contradictory provisions raise concerns that more shutdowns could be imposed in the future, if the authorities find themselves facing similar unrest or protest movements.

In its first step toward a fully civil-led government, Sudan appointed a new transitional government last August. The transitional period and the aforementioned court rulings offer Sudanese activists an opportunity to advocate for enshrining internet users’ right to access in a new-era Sudan.

Different stakeholders will need to work together to draft and implement a number of measures to amend or abolish problematic laws, improve service contracts by telecommunications companies and initiate government policies and measures to protect freedom of expression. Empowered civil society groups must also be ready to advocate, raise awareness among people and defend digital rights under threat. 

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