Senegal continues lockdown-style internet shutdowns to stem protests

The Senegalese government has continued to lockdown internet access, blocking it nationwide from 1 p.m. to 2 a.m., to quell dissent over the trial of opposition figure Ousmane Sonko.

Sonko, a politician widely revered among the country’s youth, was found guilty last Thursday of “corrupting young people” and sentenced to two years in prison. He was planning to run against President Macky Sall in next year’s election before facing various allegations – which his supporters believe are politically motivated.

Since the conviction was announced, more than 500 people have been arrested for taking part in protests. Interior Minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome said in a press conference that the government is restricting internet access to prevent the spread of “fake news” on social media and messaging apps.

Several organizations and companies that monitor internet access worldwide confirmed to Recorded Future News that the country’s mobile internet has been deliberately restricted at certain times.

Both NetBlocks and Cloudflare have collected data illustrating internet cuts. The Senegal branch of Amnesty International joined the Human Rights Foundation in criticizing the closures.

Image: NetBlocks

“We condemn the restrictions on access to social networks and the disruption of the private television signal Walf TV. These restrictions are arbitrary measures that are contrary to international law and cannot be justified by security needs,” Amnesty International said on Twitter.

Several social media sites were blocked last week, but citizens were able to circumvent the closure by using virtual private networks. Internet shutdowns became more frequent at the weekend.

The Human Rights Foundation noted that one of the victims of the violence was 26-year-old Elhaji Cissé, who shared information online and offline about security forces firing live ammunition at protesters.

Cissé had also tweeted Elon Musk asking if his Starlink service could be used to bring internet access to the people of Senegal.

“The Senegalese government has blocked Internet access for the Senegalese people. This is a violation of human rights and an attempt to silence dissent. We urge you to use Starlink to bring internet access to the people of Senegal,” Cissé said before he was killed by security forces on Saturday.

Image: Cloudflare

Daily shutdowns

David Belson, Cloudflare’s head of data insight, told Recorded Future News that so far three daily internet shutdowns have been observed at Free/Tigo, a mobile operator in the country, as well as at Sudatel Senegal.

“Free/Tigo appears to be the largest mobile network in the country, so it makes sense to focus on them. However, they generate significantly less traffic than Sonatel, which does not appear to be affected by the closures – possibly because it is largely a fixed-line operator and likely provides connectivity for business and government customers,” he said.

“Senegal also largely blocked a number of social media and messaging platforms before these shutdowns began to be implemented. It’s not clear if the takedowns were done because users found ways to circumvent the blocking, or if they were done simply to further suppress communications.”

Free released a statement on Tuesday that mobile internet would be available again after authorities told them mobile data restrictions would be lifted. The company did not respond to requests for comment on how long it would remain available.

NetBlocks director Alp Toker said that lockdown-style internet shutdowns have occurred in a variety of contexts around the world, most commonly during social unrest such as Iraq in 2019 and Myanmar in 2021.

“Oddly enough, we haven’t really practiced this on a large scale in African countries, where indefinite and undisclosed total network outages or social media throttling are the norm,” he said.

In addition, the situation in Senegal is unique in that the government shuts down connectivity during normal working hours, Belson said.

Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig is a breaking news reporter at Recorded Future News. Jonathan has been a global journalist since 2014. Before returning to New York City, he worked for news agencies in South Africa, Jordan and Cambodia. He previously worked on cyber security at ZDNet and TechRepublic.