Safaricom: Kenyan Internet Provider accused of restricting internet access during protests

Safaricom: Kenyan Internet Provider accused of restricting internet access during protests
Courtesy: Reuters

Kenyan Telecoms giant, Safaricom, has come under fire after accusations that they cut internet access for users as the country erupted in protests after the announcement (and then subsequent reversal) of the 2024 Finance Bill. 

 

On 18th June 2024, nationwide protests in the East African country broke out to oppose the State’s Finance Bill, which added heavy taxes to essential goods, hiking the cost of living. Whilst focus has been almost entirely on the Bill itself, protesters also expressed discontent at police repression, gender-based violence, unpreparedness for national emergencies and the stoking of ethnic divisions across the country. Just eight days later, 26th June 2024, President Ruto announced that he would not sign the controversial legislation after almost nationwide opposition.

 

During the protests, the State cracked down on gathering civilian critics, deploying water cannons, tear gas and riot police. Conflicting figures have emerged on the number of deaths and the brutality of the crackdown, with the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights, a state-funded organisation, reporting 22 killed protesters, and Kenya Medical Association reporting 13 people killed. 

 

From the inception of the civilian mobilisation, internet outages were reported across the country, sparking accusations that the State and telecoms giant Safaricom conspired to restrict communication and stifle organised dissent. Restricting access to vital communication services like the internet is a clear violation of the fundamental rights of Kenyans, not only suppressing their right to gather and to free speech, but also it poses a serious threat to their safety. Essential communication, particularly during times of crisis and unrest, are critical and must not be restricted by the State of Kenya or any major internet provider. 

 

Under major pressure, Safaricom have provided conflicting explanations over the two-hour outages coinciding with the protests. The telecoms giant announced that this was due to damaged underground/undersea cables. However, this has been disputed. Netblocks, internet observatory platform, reported that there is, as of yet, no evidence of damages to the providers infrastructure that would result in internet blackouts. Further, other major providers for East Africa, such as TEAMS, SEACOM and Eassy, have not reported any outages or issues. Despite this, CEO of Safaricom, Peter Ndegwa, has stated that the entire telecoms industry experienced issues. According to the Business and Human Rights Resources Centre, the only other internet service provider that reported outages was Airtel Kenya, which had intermittent issues but no blackouts. 

 

impACT International joins the likes of Access Now and #KeepItOn Coalition to strongly condemn disruption of access to vital communication infrastructure during a critical period of civilian organisation. Safaricom, if these accusations are accurate, should not involve themselves in the suppression of dissent on behalf of the State and actively aid in the denial of freedom of association and speech.

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