Authoritarian regimes have long had a complicated relationship with media and communications technologies. The Unfreedom Monitor is a Global Voices Advox research initiative examining the growing phenomenon of networked or digital authoritarianism. This extract, about Cameroon's control and censorship of the internet, is from the series of reports to come out of the research under the Unfreedom Monitor. Read the full report here.
Cameroon is a country that is increasingly characterised by digital authoritarianism. The Cameroon government has been utilising digital tools to monitor and control citizens while equally limiting access to the internet and other digital technologies.
Technology has a major impact on democracy and public life in Cameroon. The widespread use of smartphones and social media has enabled political and social activists to organise more effectively and spread their messages to more people than ever before. However, it has also opened up opportunities for the spread of mis- and disinformation, which can lead to heightened levels of ethnic polarisation and gender-based violence. The internet also provides a platform for hate speech, which can lead to further social divisions.
The lack of regulation of social media and the internet has made it easier for individuals to share false information and spread hate speech, making it difficult for citizens to understand the truth and make informed decisions. According to Kendi Gikunda, while social media was used to mobilise anglophone Cameroonians, it also became a tool for manipulation and exposing violence and injustice. Hate speech in Cameroon is used as a tool to achieve political and material ends (e.g., polarising opinions, dehumanising opponents, exacerbating feelings of frustration and hate, and calling for violent action) (Gikunda).
In addition, the prevalence of fake news and online harassment has made it more difficult for women to engage in public discourse. This has hurt the representation of women in public life and politics.
The government has implemented several laws and regulations to restrict and limit the use of digital technologies, including the internet. The law on cybersecurity and cyber criminality on the website of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication, Minpostel in Cameroon states that anyone who publishes fake news is liable to a jail term and a fine. Using mobile phone and data service providers like MTN and Orange, the government, through the National Agency for Information and Communication Technologies (ANTIC), sends out messages that sound like a warning to anyone who would dare to publish fake news, saying publishing fake news is punishable by a fine and imprisonment.
Surveillance by the state is an open secret — the government uses digital technology to identify and target dissidents, monitor activities, and even arrest and imprison people for expressing their views online. Internet shutdowns, such as those in the Anglophone regions in 2017, and throttling during the 2018 elections, are clear tools of digital authoritarianism.
Furthermore, the government has used digital technology to clamp down on freedom of expression, with journalists, bloggers, and other citizens facing arrest, detention, or even death for expressing their views online. The government has used digital technology to promote its own messaging and censor opposing views, oppress minority groups, and target those belonging to certain ethnic and religious groups.
The government, through its role as protector, a guarantor of public peace and security, guardian of territorial integrity and the image of the country, seems to reinforce digital authoritarianism using arguments such as safety and security. The series of internet disruptions in Anglophone regions before the 2018 election is one significant example However, on the opposite side, there are rights groups, civil society, and activists who condemn government action as a violation of freedoms and rights.
Read the full report here.