Fears of Internet blocks ahead of tense Guinea poll

DAKAR (AFP) – Internet freedom monitors have their eyes trained on Guinea ahead of its tension-filled election on Sunday, fearing that the government will restrict access to social media to weaken the opposition.

The concerns come after months of political unrest in the West African state, where President Alpha Conde, 82, is bidding for a controversial third term.

Defying critics, he pushed through a revamped constitution in a referendum on March 22, which he argued would modernise the country, but which also allowed him to sidestep a two-term limit for presidents.

Worryingly for rights activists, Internet disruptions accompanied the referendum – a speech-crimping scenario they said will likely play out again.

“It’s very rapidly become an element in how elections are decided in Guinea,” said Alp Toker, the founder of Internet-monitoring group NetBlocks. “March was an inflection point,” he added, noting that he thought fresh election-related restrictions were likely.

Alpha Diallo, President of the association of Guinean bloggers, also told AFP there are “certainly going to be social-media cuts” this week.

Warnings of disruptions have already appeared ahead of Sunday’s poll.

French mobile Internet service provider Orange, which operates in Guinea, recently texted its Guinean customers about potential disruptions between October 10 and 15, citing work on a submarine cable, AFP journalists in Conakry said.

Diallo’s group is deploying electoral observers on Sunday, he said, who are trained to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass possible restrictions.

But at a press conference in Conakry this week, he warned that Internet restrictions would nonetheless hinder the work of observers.

“We are not going to allow what happened last time,” he said, explaining that his group would document blocks.