Cuban journalists are being silenced, one mobile line at a time
Residents of Khartoum found themselves without internet access on April 16, as violent clashes broke out between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group descended from the militias that perpetrated genocide in Darfur in the early 2000s. The warring entities have been in a power struggle since the ousting of former president Omar Al-Bashir in 2019 that has since escalated amid negotiations over Sudan’s attempts to transition to democracy. The internet blackout was ordered by Sudan’s telecom regulator and was implemented by at least one telecom carrier, MTN, which holds 37% of the local market. Two officials from the South Africa-based telco confirmed these reports, according to Al Jazeera. The blackout lasted only a few hours. Another outage, this time on Canar Telecom, was recorded by technical researchers on April 19.
Communications blackouts are scary in violent conflict situations, especially in places where mobile messaging services like WhatsApp dominate person-to-person communication. They leave people unable to seek shelter or medical attention or to find out if their loved ones are safe. At least this outage was mercifully brief. And it’s nothing new for people in Sudan. During the protests that brought down Al-Bashir, and the 2021 military coup, nationwide internet blackouts went on for days, and sometimes weeks, at a time.
Meanwhile in the U.S., Discord, the online discussion platform popular among gamers, was thrust into the national security spotlight last week when news broke that a young military officer named Jack Teixeira had published more than 100 classified documents, most of them related to U.S. strategy around the war in Ukraine, on a Discord server. Although it sounds like Discord has been quick to cooperate with authorities and to explain at least some of its response to the public, I’m still wondering whether it will become a new target of attempts to regulate tech platforms. Time will tell.
And the clock is also ticking in Turkey, where disinformation is peaking in the lead up to national elections on May 14. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the Turkish government’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, voiced concern about disinformation in the wake of the February earthquakes and as polling day approaches. He might mean something different than we do. This week, Middle East Eye reported that at least 12,000 Twitter accounts were reactivated in Turkey, with most using either Russian or Hungarian as their primary language — sure signs of troll farms preparing to manipulate people’s understanding of what is and isn’t happening around them. We’ll be keeping close watch on the disinfo machine there as elections approach.
CUBAN AUTHORITIES OFFER ‘PERSONALIZED’ CENSORSHIP
Another election took place recently that didn’t make big headlines: Cubans voted for representatives to the country’s national assembly, which cemented a second term in office for Miguel Díaz Canel, the successor of the Castro dynasty. While every person in office there is either a member of, or sympathetic to, the Cuban Communist Party, this is far from true of all Cubans, many of whom did not vote at all.
It was the first national election since the 2020-2021 social movement that saw public demonstrations erupt across the country at a level never before seen in Cuba’s history. Digital activism and independent online media work played a big role in the movement and continue to fuel it, albeit more quietly than two years ago.
State repression of people doing this work has been a constant source of struggle. But thanks to these networks, many more people now have seen and heard firsthand accounts of the thuggish realities of living under Cuban state security. Hundreds of Cubans have been arrested for demonstrating, criticizing state policies and practice and reporting on human rights violations. Estimates and definitions vary, but at the end of 2022, there were at least 1,000 people jailed or serving time on politically-driven charges.
Those who are not behind bars continue to use a combination of tactics on the street and on their screens to show what’s happening day to day. Cubalex, a local independent group that monitors rule of law violations, kept an open record of “incidents of repression” leading up to elections. Much of what’s documented here feels like garden-variety authoritarianism — street surveillance, police stops, brief detentions. But one tactic has an extra special flavor, something unique to a small state — Cuba’s sole telecommunications provider, ETECSA, has been cutting off individual mobile phone service when journalists or activists get too vocal online.
I took a look at the issue last week, with the help of Yucabyte, a Cuban media and activism site, and its founder, Norges Rodriguez. The tactic, he explained, is nothing new. They’ve been cutting off people’s communication lines, and fixed line internet, since 2003. But the protests triggered a new wave of cuts, as did the recent election. Some activists have tried approaching ETECSA to find out what’s going on.
“The response is always that you need to change your SIM card, or that there are technical problems. Or they just don’t have a response,” Rodriguez told me. “They never say that the service outage is motivated by what a person posted on social networks. ETECSA will not get into that.”
In an interview in Yucabyte, veteran independent journalist Luz Escobar talked about her experiences having her phone line cut.
“If ETECSA cuts off your service, you have no way to connect,” she said. A seasoned reporter with 14yMedio, one of the country’s best-known independent media outlets, Escobar was detained for her reporting in 2020 and had her mobile line cut off repeatedly before she left the country last year.
“They know the phone is a powerful tool. That’s why they’re so afraid of it, and why they always make you lose time and money, because they know how difficult it is to get a mobile phone in Cuba, and they know how difficult it is to do the most basic things, like download an app,” Escobar said.
Indeed, if you’ve been wondering what’s so hard about getting a new SIM card or a new phone altogether, consider the country’s economic crisis. It has always been hard and expensive to get and maintain hardware — now it’s even more so.
For human rights activist Abu Dayanah, these tactics will ultimately only put more pressure on the authorities: “When there’s more persecution, there’s more resistance,” he says. Dayanah’s mobile line has been cut off continuously since April of 2021. But it has not kept him quiet.
I’ll close by sending kudos to the digital forensic sleuths at Citizen Lab for their recent release on the surveillance tech firm QuaDream. Since the research group published evidence of the spyware company’s “zero-click” attack capabilities the company has terminated its operations altogether. That is impact.