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DR Congo blocks social networks as Kabila's term expires

Bienvenu-Marie BAKUMANYA
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Blocking popular social networks would hinder the organisation of protests by the opposition after DR Congo President Joseph Kabila overruns his constitutional term

Blocking popular social networks would hinder the organisation of protests by the opposition after DR Congo President Joseph Kabila overruns his constitutional term (AFP Photo/Federico Scoppa)

Kinshasa (AFP) - Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have ordered that social networks including Facebook and WhatsApp be blocked soon before President Joseph Kabila's mandate expires, three internet providers said Thursday.

Congo's telecoms regulator issued an order, seen by AFP, demanding that providers cut access to social media services from 11:59 pm (2259 GMT) on Sunday.

Political tensions are running high in the country ahead of the constitutional end of Kabila's second and final term on December 20. No elections have been organised and the opposition accuses him of seeking to retain power.

Under a controversial ruling from the Constitutional Court, Kabila may remain in office beyond the end of his mandate.

The government order, seen by AFP and sent to at least three internet providers, will likely hamper the organisation of public protests against Kabila.

The letter from Congo's Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (ARPTC) requires the "temporary blocking of sharing of images, video and voice (data) over the network" but gave no reason for the measure.

It gave a non-exhaustive list of platforms subject to the block that included Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Skype.

"In cases where partial blocking is not possible, you are required to block access to the relevant social networks entirely," it said.

Text messages will continue to function as normal.

The government's plan was first raised on Tuesday at a meeting of the ARPTC.

"The ARPTC verbally instructed us during the meeting to filter connections on social networks," one internet company executive said, adding that "trials are likely to be carried out overnight Thursday (into) Friday".

"We will comply with what has been demanded," said a manager at one of the affected internet providers. "It's part of our (legal) obligations."

- TV programmes censored -

An executive at another of the affected suppliers said that disregarding the order would result in offending providers having their licences terminated.

Two providers have indicated to AFP that they will go ahead with the necessary technical tests to determine if they can impose the block as requested.

In the opposition bastion Kasai-Oriental, political television programmes have also been banned until further notice, the head of a local media organisation told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Amnesty International condemned the order to block social media sites.

"The social media shutdown on the eve of the end of President Kabila's mandate is a blatant attempt to keep the Congolese people in the dark at a critical time, and must be rescinded immediately," the watchdog's Sarah Jackson said in a statement.

Kabila's failure to step aside has led to protests in which dozens have been killed, while the European Union on Monday imposed travel bans and asset freezes on seven top DRC security officials because of "a disproportionate use of force".

- 'No photo, videos' -

The president's opponents have warned of nationwide protests from Monday until he quits office, but rallies are on hold while the Roman Catholic Church mediates last-ditch negotiations to bring about a political transition towards elections.

Blocking popular social networks would hinder the organisation of protests by the opposition after Kabila overruns his constitutional term, although one internet provider said that messaging services could stay operational, but carry "no video, photos" or voice call data.

Since 2013, hundreds of people have lost their lives in politically motivated urban violence in Kinshasa and several other towns.

Social networks mobilise protest because they are easy to use on mobile phones and data costs are relatively low for the population of one of the world's poorest nations.

Telecommunications Minister Thomas Luhaka said by text message that he was "not informed" of such measures.

During violent riots in January 2015, the authorities ordered a total 48-hour shutdown of the internet, but the measure completely paralysed the economy, mainly because banks were unable to complete transactions.

"This time the authorities have learned the lesson," one operator said. "There won't be an internet blackout (causing) enormous harm in economic terms."