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Togo: ECOWAS Court declares 2017 internet blackout unlawful, fines government

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice, has awarded a 2 million CFA suit against the government of Togo, over a state-sanctioned internet blackout in the country in 2017.

In a historic verdict, the ECOWAS court ruled that the restriction on internet access by the government, on two different occasions in 2017, was illegal and constituted a violation of freedom of expression, and more precisely, their rights to receive information, express and share opinions.

Delivering judgement in the case filed against the Government of Togo by a coalition of local CSOs, the court also ordered the government to take all necessary measures to uphold the right to freedom of expression and enact laws to prevent the occurrence of such violations in the future. The lawsuit received support from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Paradigm Initiative and other international organizations, who filed a “friends of the court” or amici curiae brief.

In 2017, authorities disrupted internet connections across the country from September 5 to 10 and again from September 19 to 21, as part of measures to suppress mass protests by civil society and government opposition. Details of these protests had been widely publicized on social networks, such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.

Internet blackouts and curfews have been part of repressive methods used by the Togolese authorities to stifle opposition calls for constitutional reforms, including a review of the number of presidential terms.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand the return of the 1992 constitution which provides for multi-party elections and a two-term limit for the presidency. The tenure limit was altered by President Eyadema Gnassingbe in 2002, to enable him to run for a 3rd term. Following his death in 2005 after a 38year rule, his son Faure took over as president. Collectively, the Gnassingbes have ruled Togo for 53 years.

The excessive use of force by Togolese security forces and violence during the nationwide protests led to the deaths of at least 11 people, including children and the arrest of over 200 protesters. The internet clampdown restricted communications, affecting the daily and professional lives of the Togolese populace, resulting in huge economic losses. Many journalists had to cross over to Ghana through the border to gain internet access.

Reactions

The judgement has been lauded by the civil rights community, with Amnesty International describing it as an “important victory” for human rights.

“The judgment rendered can also be understood as a message addressed to other states in the region which use internet shutdowns during elections or demonstrations to silence dissenting voices. All authorities must refrain from such cuts to guarantee the right to freedom of expression, in accordance with their human rights obligations,” said Marceau Sivieude, Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa at Amnesty International.

Boye Adegoke, Senior Program Manager at Paradigm Initiative, said “this decision has again emphasized the role that the court must play to rein in some African governments’ tendency to shut down the internet towards political ends. Courts cannot afford to be aloof because there are too many cases, across the continent, involving unilateral decisions to shut down the internet by incumbent governments especially around election periods or during protests.”

“We commend the ECOWAS court for this landmark judgement and congratulate the human rights community for this victory,” he added.

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