Congo orders internet and SMS cut ahead of anti-govt demonstrations

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GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec 30 (Reuters) –
Democratic Republic of Congo’s government on Saturday ordered
telecommunications providers to cut internet and SMS services
across the country ahead of planned anti-government
demonstrations.

Grassroots Catholic activists have called for marches in
major cities on Sunday to demand that President Joseph Kabila
commit to not changing the constitution to stand for a third
term and release political prisoners.

Kabila was required by the constitution to step down in
December last year when his mandate expired but an election to
replace him has been repeatedly delayed and is now scheduled for
December 2018.

Security forces killed dozens of protesters during
anti-Kabila demonstrations last year, and deteriorating security
has led to fears of renewed civil strife in Congo, where
millions of people died in civil wars around the turn of the
century.

“It is for reasons of state security,” telecommunications
minister Emery Okundji told Reuters. “In response to violence
that is being prepared … the government has the duty to take
all measures to protect Congolese lives.”

Okundji wrote a letter to telecoms providers ordering them
to suspend internet and SMS services by 6 p.m. in the capital
Kinshasa (1700 GMT) until further instruction, although some
users still had access more than two hours later.

Congolese authorities have banned Sunday’s demonstrations,
which have been backed by most opposition leaders, and warned
that all gatherings of more than five people will be dispersed.

A series of appeals by opposition leaders for protests this
year have been easily suppressed by security forces but the
Catholic activists’ call has managed to unite nearly all of
Congo’s fractious opposition.

Some 40 percent of Congo’s population is Catholic and the
church enjoys rare credibility with the public, even though its
leadership has not formally backed Sunday’s protests.

On Dec. 31 last year, Kabila’s ruling majority and
opposition leaders struck a deal that allowed Kabila to stay in
power beyond the end of his mandate but required that the
election to replace him be held by the end of 2017.

The country’s electoral commission, however, later said that
was not possible and scheduled the vote for Dec. 23, 2018.

Congo’s government also cut internet and SMS service during
anti-government demonstrations in January 2015 and more recently
ordered limits to certain social media access, one of more than
a dozen African governments to have done so in the past two
years.