Internet Shutdown in Togo Ruled Unlawful by ECOWAS Court of Justice

In a landmark judgment of 25 June 2020, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States has ruled that the September 2017 shutdown of the internet in Togo was unlawful, and contrary to international law.

Can Yeginsu and Anthony Jones were instructed in the case by Access Now’s General Counsel, Peter Micek, to make submissions on international law on behalf of the Committee to Protect Journalists, ARTICLE 19, Access Now and other members of the KeepItON coalition.

In an interview with the International Bar Association about the case, Can Yeginsu commented in his capacity as a member of the High-Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom:

The Internet is now one of the principal means by which individuals exercise their right to the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas: it is a key gateway to the public’s access to news. The decision of the Togolese authorities to shut down the Internet completely in September 2017 therefore constituted a very severe interference with the fundamental rights of the Togolese people. This was not an isolated case on the African continent: Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Chad, Benin, and Zimbabwe have all seen the Internet shut down in recent years. As have other countries all over the world: these sorts of restrictions are now very much a global concern.

The decision of the ECOWAS Court to declare the 2017 shutdown in Togo unlawful, a violation of the right to freedom of expression as protected by international law, and its injunction to the state “to take necessary measures” to ensure that the Internet is not shut down in the future sends an important message to Togo, to the West African States, and to other countries contemplating similar action. This is also another landmark judgment from the ECOWAS Court in the area of freedom of expression, following its decision in February 2018 to order the Gambia to repeal its criminal libel laws.

The Togo judgment came, of course, only two days after the European Court of Human Rights held Russia’s law on website blocking to have an excessive and arbitrary impact on the right to freedom of expression. These are important and timely judgments from international courts: they give effect to an international minimum standard of protection for freedom of expression at a time when national authorities are moving to curb essential freedoms.”

Can Yeginsu is leading Anthony Jones and Doughty Street’s Claire Overman in the Wikimedia Foundation’s challenge currently before the European Court of Human Rights to the access ban on Wikipedia in Turkey. Can and Anthony were also counsel for the successful applicants in FAJ v the Gambia another landmark judgment of the ECOWAS Court that ordered the Gambia to repeal its criminal defamation laws in 2018.