People in Senegal have been experiencing internet disruptions as authorities restrict access to social media amid protests.
Many of the most popular platforms around, including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and YouTube, went dark across the country on the evening of June 1—UK-based internet watchdog NetBlocks has reported. Senegal is the third country in West Africa to clamp down on the internet to silence dissidents in recent weeks.
Citizens across the region have been turning to Secure VPN services since May 17. Google Trends data shows a spike in VPN-related searches, in fact—as experts confirm that a virtual private network can effectively circumvent these types of restrictions.
Why is internet in West Africa going dark?
"The recent internet restrictions in Senegal are surprising given that the country is seen as one of the region's more stable democracies," Isik Mater, Director of Research at NetBlocks, told Techradar.
"Even so, this isn't a first for Senegal—in 2021 authorities briefly imposed similar measures when [Ousmane] Sonko was detained, paving the way for more censorship."
At this time, the block on social media came following the widespread protests in Dakar and other major cities over the sentencing of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko. He was sentenced to two-year jail time on charges of "corrupting youth" on May 30. However, his supporters believe this to be a ploy to prevent him from running in next February's presidential elections—Al Jazeera reported.
Earlier in the week, NetBlocks also observed that several government websites and online platforms were the targets of a series of cyberattacks over the treatment of Sonko.
Senegal is just the last instance of how governments across the world use internet shutdowns in times of political crisis—the third across Western Africa region in about two-week time. "The social media blackout echoes measures in other African countries and reflects government insecurities in the face of social unrest or criticism," said Mater.
En #Guinee, en #Mauritanie et au #Sénégal, l’Internet ou les réseaux sociaux ont été restreints, ces temps-ci, dans le contexte de manifestations, privant les citoyens de leurs droits à l’information. Cette tendance montre le durcissement de ces régimes en perte de légitimitéJune 1, 2023
People in Guinea have been having trouble to access popular social media platforms unless using a secure VPN service since May 17. Here, authorities shut down the internet access as a means to disrupt some peaceful anti-government demonstrations planned for the following days.
The move raised serious concerns for people's freedom of speech and a free press. "These are bad signals for our young democracy," Sally Bilaly, a Conakry-based reporter, told TechRadar when the disruptions began.
On May 30, it was the time for the internet in the neighboring Mauritania to go dark. Authorities were reported to shut down mobile networks "in the midst of protests over the death of a young man in police custody," data from cybersecurity company Cloudflare shows.
Mauritania is also one of the 14 nations that broke its promises to uphold free internet under the 2021 UN resolution together with India, Sudan, Cuba, Burkina Faso, Russia, Pakistan and Somalia—a new study from VPN provider Surfshark found out.
As internet shutdowns are extensively used in times of crisis, these measures have huge effects on both national economies and citizen well-being.
"Internet shutdowns infringe on digital rights, hinder freedom of speech, access to information, and freedom of assembly. They also make it harder to stay safe and check up on loved ones and make a serious dent to national economies," Mater told us, adding that the risk for these information blackouts to occur gets even heightened during elections.
"In each case, the overriding risk is that the practice is being normalized, which is why we believe independent monitoring matters now more than ever."
Despite being ineffective in case of a total blackout, a VPN can help to bypass internet restrictions like those enforced in Senegal at the moment. That's because it spoofs your IP address, making you appear to be from a different country within seconds. Unlike a proxy, however, it encrypts all of your data so no one (not even the government) can see what you're doing online.
I invite everyone in need to head on our free VPN guide to look for a reliable free-of-charge service. Our top choice at the moment is PrivadoVPN. Some of the best providers, including Surfshark, even offer discounted and free premium subscriptions to NGOs, activists and journalists across affected regions—so don't be afraid to reach out for support.
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Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org