MTN contributed to human rights violations in Sudan, say 23 civil society groups


COMMENT

Dear MTN Sudan CEO Melik Melamu & MTN Group CEO Rob Shuter:

We write to urgently request that you publicly denounce the internet shutdowns in Sudan, and pledge your support to maintain unfettered internet access in the country, especially in moments of conflict or unrest. In line with your past commitments to respect digital rights in the places where you operate, it is crucial that you exercise all possible methods of denouncing the shutdown, providing information to the public around how and why it was implemented, and contributing to reporting on its impact.

Research shows that internet shutdowns and violence go hand in hand.
Shutdowns disrupt the free flow of information and create a cover of darkness that allows repression to occur without scrutiny. The internet shutdown in Sudan persisted for more than five weeks beginning June 3, shortly after the Transitional Military Council (TMC) ordered the Janjaweed militia to commit a murderous attack on hundreds of peaceful protesters.

In the wake of this violence, MTN Sudan and other telecommunications companies blocked access to the internet through disruption of various local and roaming cellular data networks, as well as some fixed-line services, presumably in response to demands of the TMC. As thousands of Sudanese people continue to struggle in the face of this violence for a dream of civilian rule, it is important to note that many of these protesters are young and old people, and many of them MTN customers.

By implementing these blocks, MTN Sudan and others contributed to the TMC’s interference with the exercise of human rights, including the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, as well as press freedom, and prevented people from accessing emergency medical services, putting lives at risk. The shutdown also cut off access to e-financing and slowed economic development, seriously harming the innovative businesses and individuals dependent on MTN Sudan’s services. While restoring connectivity helps mitigate and prevent future harms to digital rights, remedy remains lacking for violations that occurred over the five weeks of the shutdown.

This round of shutdowns in Sudan severely limited individuals’ ability to receive and share information both within Sudan and with the rest of the world. It has been extremely challenging for journalists to report the situation on the ground in real time and to shed light on the high number of human rights violations committed in the past weeks. Notably, the alternative forms of communications, such as SMS and mobile phone calls, can be insecure, and put journalists, activists, human rights defenders, and even emergency service providers in danger. Further, when the status of networks are shrouded in secrecy, citizens, journalists, and emergency services cannot do their work with certainty, even when governments claim that connectivity is restored.

Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, and mitigate or remedy harms they cause or contribute to. Under the United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights, which the Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed and African Union officials have pledged to support, business enterprises “should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.”

As a leading telecommunications provider in Sudan, Africa, and beyond, MTN Group and its subsidiary MTN Sudan enable people to exercise their rights and enjoy the economic, social, and cultural benefits of the global internet. Your company’s human rights impacts are magnified during conflicts, when, without internet access, entire communities are left more isolated, vulnerable, and at risk. MTN is one of the only telcos among its regional competitors that has been ranked in the Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index, indicating the scope of the company’s potential impacts and the importance of its role in defending human rights.

While MTN Group’s expressed intention to respect digital rights — including through the “digital human rights policy” — has not gone unnoticed, the company’s low rankings in the 2019 Corporate Accountability Index, particularly on issues of freedom of expression and network disruptions, are a clear indication that more can and should be done. The recent shutdowns in Sudan posed a severe threat to the safety, health, and wellbeing of MTN’s affected customers, and present an important opportunity for MTN to rise to, and exceed, baseline expectations of human rights due diligence, and mitigation and remedy of any violations. To do so, MTN should urgently adopt the recommendations outlined below.

Further, internet shutdowns — whether in Sudan or other countries — must never be allowed to become the new normal, and we encourage you to integrate these practices for responding to censorship and network disruption requests in all markets where you operate.

Recommendations:

  • Publicly denounce the shutdown and disruptions in Sudan, and the harm it has caused to your customers, your company, and the society at large;
  • Reveal any demands from the government that led you to disrupt internet access, and any gag order or other pressure to conceal the demand;
  • Publicly disclose when the internet and related services have been disrupted, their status throughout the shutdown, and when they come back online; and
  • Jointly push back against government censorship demands, through all legal and policy tools at your disposal, including regular transparency reports, in order to ensure open and secure internet access and deter future shutdown orders.

The undersigned civil society organisations in Sudan and worldwide appreciate your swift attention to these recommendations, and pledge our support in assisting your efforts to deter future internet shutdowns.

Sincerely,

Access Now, African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms (AfDec) Coalition, African Development Solutions Lab – Experts, African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX), Africtivistes, Andrea Ngombet – Incarner l’Espoir, Article 19 East Africa, Association for Progressive Communications, Blueprint for Free Speech, Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Committee to Protect Journalists, Derechos Digitales, MISA Zimbabwe, NetBlocks Group, Internet Sans Frontières, Open Net Africa, Paradigm Initiative, PEN America, Right 2 Know Campaign, SMEX – Social Media Exchange, The Bachchao Project, WITNESS, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET).