All is not well in Burundi because of protests sparked by the insistence on a third term in office by President Pierre Nkurunziza and communication through social media has become a casualty of the latest crackdown. Twitter, Whatsapp, Facebook and Viber have been blocked for almost a week now.

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) East Africa Representative Tom Rhodes describes the situation in that country as “frightening”.

“With the closure of social media on phones, journalists being threatened on the streets – [to] the point where two prominent journalists (the Head of the leading private radio, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) and the Head of the Burundi journalist union) are both in hiding – not to mention the arbitrary closure of RPA and diminished broadcast ranges of two other leading stations (Bonesha FM and Isanganiro FM) – we are seeing Burundi return to the dark days of civil conflict, ethnic tensions and total state control of the press.” added Rhodes who is monitoring goings on from nearby Kenya.

Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) regulatory advisor Dominic Cull says a decision to cut off social media as happened in Burundi is primarily a political one and other examples of where this happens are North Korea, China through the infamous Great Firewall, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Pakistan and even Turkey.

On ways to circumvent such blocks Cull says with the exception of North Korea which does not have an outside connection at all the others have software and hardware limitations on the network and there are ways to circumvent them although it can be very difficult. This he says can be done by way of Virtual Private Networks (VPN), proxy servers and other mechanisms by disguising one’s location and accessing a site like Facebook through an internet connection from a country that has not restricted access.

Cull adds that the average person would not know how to use these means to bypass restrictions although some in South Africa are doing so in order to access Netflix for example by pretending that they are in the US. South Africa, he says, has several protections against a Burundi style crackdown.

“The first safeguard (in instances of censorship) is the Constitution… and having a competitive market with lots of  different service providers who have lots of different cables which connect us to the rest of the world.”

Cull cites a country like Swaziland as an example of where you’ve got only one mobile network – which is MTN – and therefore at increased risk of suppression of free speech because government has fewer targets to pressure.

All social media platforms are vulnerable to tampering by governments although the location of a server does increase a social network’s vulnerability depending on where one is accessing it from because this dictates how redress can be sought according to Cull. He added that what is happening in Burundi cannot be equated to the signal jamming that took place during the opening of Parliament earlier in the year because that was more localised and is unlikely to be implemented on a countrywide basis.

“The signal jamming does however give us an indication that the South African government would be predisposed towards looking at what it can do to suppress communication in a situation such as that which they faced in Parliament on that day. Can they scale it up? I’m not so sure.”

[Image: by CC0/Geralt]