A project of Freedom on the Net

Elections and internet censorship often go hand in hand. As citizens head to the polls, repressive governments limit access to information, and in the most extreme cases, cut off internet service entirely. Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net project has estimated the risk of restrictions on internet freedom during upcoming elections in selected countries.

Americas

  • Brazil

    October 2018

    General Election

    Medium Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    There is a medium risk of further internet restrictions around Brazil's presidential run-off on October 28 between far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro and leftist candidate Fernando Haddad. First-round elections were held on October 7.

    • Fake News: As concerns about proliferation of false information surge in the lead-up to the 2018 general elections, several initiatives and legislative proposals have emerged to tackle these practices. With some 10 draft bills appearing in the first four months of 2018 alone, proposals seeking to criminalize the dissemination of fake news sparked freedom of expression and censorship concerns. Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court has even warned that the elections could be annulled if results were found to be heavily influenced by such practices. In July 2018, Facebook reportedly removed a network of pages and accounts that were “spreading misinformation.”
    • Content Removal: The Electoral Law limits publication of content deemed “injurious” to candidates during electoral periods. During the 2014 general elections, the law was used to justify almost 200 lawsuits and numerous content removal requests. Under a December 2017 resolution, the electoral court can order platforms to remove online content relaying information “known to be untrue” about candidates
    • Harassment and Violence: Online journalists and bloggers are subjected to harassment and, in some cases, violence. Those investigating local corruption scandals are especially at risk. At least three journalists, including one who worked online, have been killed in 2018. These troubling trends also threaten freedom of expression and could increase self-censorship among online media and internet users alike.
    Read more about internet freedom in Brazil.
  • United States

    November 2018

    Parliamentary Elections

    Low Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Free

    Analysis

    With a third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives up for election, in addition to state and local offices, the online sphere is again a partisan battleground. While there is a low risk that the government will impose any restrictions on the internet ahead of the midterm elections on November 6, disinformation, technical attacks, and online harassment have impacted online freedom.

    • Disinformation: Disinformation campaigns, traced back to Russia, Iran, and China, have sought to divide and create conflict among Americans, leading to both Facebook and Twitter removing over 600 pages and accounts. Both platforms have also identified and removed over 800 pages and accounts run by American citizens that were fraudulent or intentionally spreading disinformation. These efforts, whether originating domestically or abroad, risk undermining confidence in the American electoral process and, at their worst, impacting election outcomes.
    • Technical Attacks: Concerns over Russian cyberespionage and electoral interference have reemerged. In August 2018, Microsoft disabled six phony websites targeting conservative think tanks and Senate staff. The sites were created by Russian hacking group Fancy Bear and were apparently designed for a spear-phishing campaign. In July, two Senators were also targeted by spear-phishing attacks believed to have originated in Russia.
    • Harassment and Violence: Journalists, activists, and internet users face increased threats and harassment on online platforms. The Trump administration continues to disparage journalists using derogatory or threatening language, and in one instance even praised a sitting congressman for assaulting a Guardian reporter. One form of intimidation targeting journalists is “doxxing,” when users publish journalists’ personal information without their consent. Marginalized communities are also at risk for increased harassment and threats online, including immigrants, LGBTI people, Muslims, and people of color. Online harassment remains one of the driving forces behind self-censorship and undermines users’ ability to exercise their right to free expression.
    Read more about internet freedom in United States.

Asia-Pacific

Monitor Election Gauge Legend
  • Bangladesh

    January 2019

    Parliamentary Elections

    Medium Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    • The government blocked some news sites with ties to the opposition in 2016.
    • Dozens of users have been charged for criticizing companies, individuals, or political figures, though prison sentences are rare.
    • Religious extremists have killed bloggers with secular views. 
    Read more about internet freedom in Bangladesh.
  • Cambodia

    July 2018

    Parliamentary Elections

    High Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    Restrictions on internet freedom run a high risk of intensifying around the July 29 elections, as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party seeks to retain its 40-year grip on power.

    • Censorship: The government ramped up restrictions on digital media starting in 2016. Authorities recently released a list of controversial guidelines for journalists covering the elections and passed a directive to penalize those accused of posting “fake news” online with up to five years in prison.
    • Arrests: Opposition politicians have been charged and jailed for content posted on Facebook. Cambodia’s recently implemented lèse-majesté law is an additional avenue for arrests based on legitimate online activity.
    • Harassment: Political activists, opposition members, and civil society organizations also face cyberattacks and smear campaigns.
    Read more about internet freedom in Cambodia.
  • Pakistan

    July 2018

    Parliamentary Elections

    Medium Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Not Free

    Analysis

    • Political parties campaign vigorously online, but regulators recently blocked one party’s website for carrying allegedly anti-Pakistan views.
    • Authorities frequently impose brief shutdowns of internet service on security grounds.
    • Other threats to internet freedom could increase, including physical attacks and criminal charges in reprisal for digital speech involving religion or government officials.
    Read more about internet freedom in Pakistan.
  • Thailand

    February 2019

    Parliamentary Elections

    High Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Not Free

    Analysis

    • The military government has postponed elections since seizing power in a 2014 coup, while increasing censorship and imposing long criminal sentences for online speech.
    • Online discussion of a 2016 constitutional referendum was heavily restricted, boding ill for the upcoming parliamentary vote. 
    Read more about internet freedom in Thailand.

Eurasia

Monitor Election Gauge Legend
  • Georgia

    October 2018

    Presidential Election

    Low Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Free

    Analysis

    There is a low risk of internet restrictions ahead of Georgia’s presidential election on October 27, the last time voters will directly elect the president due to 2017 constitutional amendments. The 2016 parliamentary elections were deemed free and fair, with no curbs on internet freedom.

    • Online Media: The online media environment is free and unrestricted. Although, there is an increased risk of more partisan content online, as a number of online media outlets, some of which demonstrate political bias, coordinate informally to disseminate news.
    • Harassment and Violence: Online harassment targeting journalists and activists may increase ahead of the election, particularly harassment perpetrated by far-right and nationalist groups. Albeit rare, some isolated cases of violence against online journalists have occurred in the past.
    Read more about internet freedom in Georgia.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Monitor Election Gauge Legend
  • Rwanda

    September 2

    Parliamentary Elections

    Medium Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    There is a medium risk of further restrictions to internet freedom around Rwanda’s September 2 parliamentary elections, continuing the government’s trend of repressing online activity.  

    • Harassment: Government critics and online journalists face intimidation and harassment from progovernment social media users, including a so-called “Twitter Army.”  Such tactics also proliferated ahead of the 2017 presidential election.
    • Blocking: The government restricts access to critical and independent content by blocking a number of websites and news outlets produced locally, regionally, and internationally.
    • Legal framework: Numerous vague laws may be used to silence and surveil critics. There are laws against insulting officials or police; drawing cartoons ridiculing government officials or the military; and disseminating “grossly offensive” or indecent” messages as well as the use of ICTs to cause “annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety.” The government monitors the telecommunications of individuals considered potential threats to “public security.”
    • Self-censorship: Online news outlets often avoid political, social, or critical topics for fear of government retribution. Self-censorship is so prevalent that despite a range of restrictive criminal laws, arrests for online comments are relatively infrequent.
    Read more about internet freedom in Rwanda.
  • Zimbabwe

    By July 2018

    General Election

    High Risk

    Internet Freedom Status: Partly Free

    Analysis

    There is a high risk of further internet restrictions around Zimbabwe’s July 30 elections, the first since the end of Robert Mugabe’s 30-year presidency.

    • Shutdowns: Access to WhatsApp was disabled during antigovernment protests in July 2016. After service was unblocked, the government temporarily hiked the cost of mobile data plans by 500 percent to limit civic organizing.
    • Arrests: Individuals have been routinely arrested for expressing political opinions online, including a pastor for criticizing the government over fuel shortages on Facebook, and at least four people for posting “falsehoods or hate speech” on social media.
    • Cyberattacks: Voter information held by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was reportedly taken by hackers in July and published online. Around the same time, Zimbabweans received unsolicited texts from the ruling ZANU-PF party.
    • Fake News: ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC have used social media to attack one another and to share misleading images. Fake news has also been employed to question the integrity of the electoral commission.
    Read more about internet freedom in Zimbabwe.

Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images