Cameroonian journalist Richard Onanena’s recent trip to neighbouring Chad to cover the first round of elections on 10 April was a harrowing experience. Due to the restrictions on communications imposed by the government, he was unable to send messages or reach his colleagues at the BBC Africa service’s headquarters in Dakar. ‘On the morning of the election, I was supposed to send my report live from N’Djamena, but I couldn’t because of the blackout’. What’s more, Onanena says he was unable to reach his contacts in Chad to check what was happening at the various voting stations. ‘We moved blindly from one polling station to another without knowing what to expect,’ he told ISS Today. The shutting down of social media, messaging and mobile phone communications around the elections in Chad came in the wake of similar incidents in the Republic of Congo and Uganda, where governments also severely restricted access to communication networks during the recent elections. Election monitors and civil society organisations are increasingly concerned about this phenomenon, which signals a return to Cold War-era censorship and an attempt by governments to control the flow of information.
This trend is in contrast to the wave of democratic elections in Africa that benefited from the use of communications technology. From the early 2000s journalists, opposition parties and civil society organisations in various countries have used technology very effectively. This has included monitoring elections by transmitting voting results via mobile phones and broadcasting these on radio, as these are released by electoral commissions.
In Senegal in 2000, journalists could, for the first time, contribute to the fairness and transparency of the presidential polls through this parallel monitoring process. The mobile phone boom coincided with the freeing of the airwaves, allowing independent radio stations like Walfadjri to inform all Senegalese citizens of the results posted up on the polling stations. This is an excellent way to help curb vote rigging.
The same method was used effectively in Ghana, also in 2000, and was repeated elsewhere across the continent. In 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia brought long-serving dictators to a fall; also thanks to the power of social media and mass communication. Citizens of these countries, one has to add, had long been accustomed to authoritarian governments that restrict free speech to a minimum, and had devised strategies to get around such restrictions. Attempts by these regimes to stem popular revolutions by restricting social media access therefore failed.
Full Article: Africa: Switch Off the Lights, We’re Voting – allAfrica.com.