South Sudan’s restriction of social media services may be part of a regional trend where protesters are blocked from expressing views online.
But the country’s low internet penetration may make a mockery of the very punitive policy.
On Sunday and Monday, the country experienced an internet blackout, described by officials as a technical problem.
South Sudan has the lowest access to the internet across the East African region, in spite of fears it could be used to destabilise the unity government.
On Sunday and early Monday, online users said they were unable to access Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other online applications and sites. Many users said they were only able to access those sites after resorting to using virtual private networks (VPNs).
Information Minister Michael Makuei said experts were working to resolve the glitch.
“We have a technical problem that the engineers are working on…It should be clear that it is not a shutdown by the government. It is a technical problem that needs to be addressed. If that fault is addressed, then it will come back,” he said.
It came as Surfshark — a privacy protection company — said that South Sudan had now become the 67th country in the world that experienced restricted social media access over the last six years.
The internet disruption comes amid planned protests, whose ring leaders say the government has been unresponsive to the plight of the people.
Cutting off social media access is a common practice in African countries, especially during elections, protests, demonstrations or exams.
So far, 31 countries in Africa have blocked or heavily restricted social media access since 2015, said Surfshark in a statement on Monday evening.
Research shows that in 2021 alone, there were eleven political cases of internet disruption across the world in Uganda, Russia, Myanmar, Senegal, Chad, the Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Cuba, Zambia, and recently in South Sudan.
“Internet censorship has seen prominent growth worldwide, especially in Asian and African regions, and even more so recently during elections and other political events.
“These governments usually go after communication apps like WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook Messenger, Viber, and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram,” Surfshark said.
“Most internet censorship and social media restriction cases in Africa have to do with riots, protests, elections, and other events of political nature,” the company added.
South Sudan’s problems
South Sudan, which celebrated its 10th independence anniversary in July, is still facing problems that inspired the then southern Sudan rebels to fight and seek secession. Insecurity, poverty and disease have continued.
Specifically, technological development was as well left at a standstill. A unity government formed between President Salva Kiir, then opposition nemesis Riek Machar and several other political groups, is still facing problems as splinter groups emerge.
In December last year, Tufts University ranked Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania as the leading countries in digital growth and development in East Africa. Meanwhile, South Sudan got its first-ever connection to the region and the world in 2019 when three fibre optic companies established offices in Juba — an event that made citizens joyous, particularly those within the capital Juba where most services are based.
In the past and currently, many citizens have and continue to remain unexposed to technological developments. Reports say telecom companies have been the only internet service providers, which at times don’t reach states levels.
Low digital literacy
According to research conducted by Unicef years ago, 7 per cent of South Sudanese have access to the internet. And with low or incomplete digital literacy, especially on social media, many citizens have become victims of online scams, such as social media accounts hacking and human trafficking, among others.
But many online users have used Facebook to push several agendas in South Sudan.
Several online critics have faced threats while others have been arrested for criticising the government.
In 2020, several activists sought asylum abroad after making comments critical of President Kiir. Some journalists have also gone underground after reporting or posting information seen as injurious to the country.
A 2021 Hootsuite report, released in January this year, showed that there were more than 900,000 internet users across South Sudan.