DRC halts Internet access and cellphone services amid protests

New York, January 22, 2015–Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday shut down Internet access and SMS service for mobile phones throughout the country after nationwide demonstrations led to deadly clashes with police, according to news reports.

Internet and mobile phone service providers, including major companies like Vodacom, Airtel, Tigo, and Orange, said Congolese officials told them on Monday they had until midnight to suspend Internet access and SMS services throughout the country, according to news reports. Vodacom, one of the country’s largest service providers, said all of the companies had complied, according to news reports.

Internet service was partially restored today, but SMS service remains suspended and social media sites remained blocked, according to news reports.

A Congolese official told The Wall Street Journal that the shutdown order was permitted under the country’s telecommunication’s law and that the measure would help prevent more protests.

“By shutting down Internet and messaging services and blocking websites, Congolese authorities are denying citizens their fundamental right to communicate and to receive and impart information,” said CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator, Sue Valentine. “We call on President Joseph Kabila’s government to restore all communications channels and ensure that journalists can cover public demonstrations safely.”

Protesters around the country this week demonstrated against a proposed amendment to electoral laws by President Joseph Kabila, which would allow him to run for a third term. President Kabila has been in power since January 2001. Under the Congolese constitution, a president may serve no more than two terms. The amendment was passed by the House of Representatives on Saturday. The Senate today delayed its vote, according to news reports.

Authorities fired shots and deployed tear gas on protesters and have arrested hundreds, according to news reports. Reports conflicted on the number of deaths, with some citing authorities as saying five had been killed, including two police officers. Other reports said as many as 42 had been killed in the clashes.

Some Twitter users, including a reporter for the BBC, posted on Twitter on Wednesday saying that Radio France Internationale had been blocked in the country. CPJ could not independently confirm the blocking. RFI did not immediately respond to CPJ’s requests for comment by phone and over social media.

In November, authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo called for the shutdown of several radio stations, accusing many of incitement. CPJ has called for authorities to determine the motive in the December killing of state radio reporter Robert Chamwami Shalubuto in North Kivu province. No one has been brought to justice in the murder.