Jean-Jacques Cornish

Give the African internet providers a break

by Jean-Jacques Cornish

Is access to the internet a right or a privilege? The same question might be asked of international travel.

Governments are able to control both of these. Embarrassed at denying access to them by political foes, they justify their repressive action by saying the ability to get onto the internet or  to cross borders is a privilege.

Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution promoting and protecting the right of users to get online.

It urged countries to enshrine this in their local law.

No fewer than 11 African countries responded, as it were, by instructing the providers to switch off the internet.

The companies refuse to talk about this, save to say that their licensing agreements stipulate governments’ right to order them to close down access.

The governments have  learned the lesson from the Arab Spring five years ago where demonstrations were directed by the internet.

The protestors turned out in droves having been summoned by what they had learned online.

And that was years before the more efficient and infinitely wider-reaching Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp we know today.

The real game changer, of course, is social media. That simply cannot be silenced.

It is very foolish of  governments to think they control things simply by making pc and smartphone screen’s go blank.

Yayha Jammeh shut down the internet before the election he lost in December last year.

Thanks to decisive action by the Economic Community of West African States it did not stop him being forced to accept defeat and go into exile.

Currently, the Cameroon has instructed the service providers to cut off the internet to 20% of the country where English-speaking citizens complain they are being bullied and marginalized by the French-speaking majority.

Activists are angry with the telephone companies, who are the internet service providers, for complying with government directives

They say being a service provider  about more than profit and providing faster internet.

I get a sense of deja vu here, going back to South African newspapers during the apartheid era.

The anti-apartheid lobby argued that by succumbing to Pretoria’s repressive media laws we were playing into the hands of the repressive regime.

The idealists then and their contemporaries today have difficulty in accepting that operating in the mainstream media is a business.

That is necessarily accompanied by a raft of responsibilities.

Above all, it requires staying alive to do what businesses do: make a profit for owners and shareholders.

True we did have to comply with many of the laws. One editor likened his job at the time to walking blindfolded through a minefield.

But we should be given some credit for ingenuity.

By coming out daily, we were able to drive a coach and horses through some of the more repressive measures  imposed by the apartheid regime and in so doing play a significant role in bringing down the evil system.

Surely we should allow today’s internet service providers similar space.

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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.