Famed for its vivid cultural tapestry and contrasting landscapes, Senegal represents an amalgamation of time-honored traditions and emerging modernities. The country has shown growth in digitalization, with an increase in internet usage and mobile connectivity. However, challenges in digital rights, online freedom, and internet privacy persist, highlighted by recent laws and internet shutdowns. Senegal is part of various international frameworks like the African Union, which have implications on its digital landscape.
Internet Censorship and Freedom
Previously viewed as a bastion of democratic values, Senegal has raised concerns due to multiple instances of internet shutdowns. In June 2023, platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Telegram, and YouTube were blocked, followed by a broader internet disruption. Similar occurrences happened in 2021. These actions are often rationalized by the government as measures to curtail “hateful and subversive” messages but are criticized for stifling civil liberties and impacting the economy.
Peer-to-Peer Services and Torrenting
While there is limited public information on Senegal’s official stance on P2P services and torrenting, the nation does have intellectual property laws that could potentially be applied against unauthorized file sharing.
Media Websites and Social Media Access
Before the disruptive events of 2021 and 2023, access to popular social media platforms in Senegal was largely unimpeded. However, these incidents signal a tectonic shift in the digital landscape of the country. In 2021, the government initiated internet shutdowns that lasted a few hours, targeting popular platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. These disruptions were linked to political unrest following the arrest of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.
The situation escalated in June 2023 when the government not only blocked several social media platforms but also extended the shutdown to include all mobile internet and even some television stations. The entire sequence lasted for about six days—two days for social media platforms followed by a four-day mobile internet shutdown. This was again in response to political unrest, this time following the conviction of the same opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko.
These shutdowns have not only impeded the free flow of information and communication among citizens but have also had significant economic repercussions. The shifting digital terrain raises serious questions about the stability of both online freedom and economic activities in Senegal.
Information on net neutrality in Senegal is limited. However, as of the latest data, ISPs do not appear to be involved in practices that egregiously violate net neutrality principles.
Surveillance and Privacy
The 2021 counterterrorism laws in Senegal mark a significant shift in the balance of power between citizens and the state when it comes to surveillance activities. These laws, while crafted to target terrorism and organized crime, possess a particular feature that has drawn substantial concern: they bypass the need for judicial approval when initiating surveillance actions. This aspect eliminates an essential check on executive authority and opens the door to potential misuse.
In a political landscape where maintaining a balance between national security and individual freedoms is already challenging, the absence of judicial oversight becomes particularly concerning. The laws create an environment in which the state could, theoretically, engage in surveillance aimed not just at suspected terrorists but also at political opponents, activists, or even ordinary citizens involved in peaceful protests. This not only risks infringing on privacy rights but also has the potential to stifle democratic dialogue and civil liberties.
Targeting of Dissenters and Online Speech
The challenges that dissenters face in Senegal are underscored by the ambiguous wording of Article 255 of the penal code. This provision has been cited for its lack of a clear definition of “false news,” creating an environment ripe for potential misuse by authorities. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, several individuals found themselves summoned by law enforcement for expressing skepticism or outright denying the virus’s existence on social media platforms. Such activities, although debatable in the realm of public health, raise questions about the extent to which the state can curtail free expression under the guise of combating misinformation.
Moreover, Senegal’s situation isn’t isolated but reflects a broader trend observed across multiple African nations. Laws intended to regulate online harms often end up suppressing legitimate discourse due to their vagueness. In this light, the dilemma for Senegal and similar countries lies in striking the right balance between regulatory needs and the preservation of digital rights. While regulation is important for maintaining social stability and public safety, the current state of legal ambiguity could potentially serve as a powerful tool for stifling dissent and limiting freedom of expression. This dynamic underscores the importance of civil society’s role in pushing for legal clarity and safeguards that protect citizens’ digital rights.
Senegal is at a crossroads in its digital landscape. Once known for its relative freedom and burgeoning digital space, the nation is now grappling with laws and practices that put its reputation at risk. Future directions may well depend on the interplay between public opinion, legal reforms, and international standards. Given current trends, both optimism and vigilance are warranted.