In a strange twist to the increasingly violent situation in the Central African Republic, the government banned text messages last week. Mobile phone users who attempt to text now receive a message reading “SMS not allowed.” The country’s communications minister said the ban was put in place to “contribute to the restoration of security in the country.”
The blackout, scheduled to last for “several days,” went into effect after the government sent a letter to the country’s four main cell phone providers, including France’s Orange.
The ban came in response to a mass text urging a general strike to protest the failure of the government and international peacekeepers to stop the ongoing violence, which has now displaced 4.5 million people. The capital, Bangui, has been paralyzed by protests, particularly by its Muslim residents, in recent days, and French peacekeepers have been publicly booed.
A U.N. report released last week found “ample evidence” of war crimes being committed by both sides in the ongoing conflict between the primarily Muslim Seleka and primarily Christian anti-Balaka militias.
There has been some interesting research done on the role played by mobile technology and political violence. A study published last year in the American Political Science Review found that from 2007 to 2009, areas of Africa with 2G network coverage were 50 percent more likely to have experienced incidents of armed conflict than those without. The authors argue that just as mobile communications help those organizing nonviolent protests, they can also make it easier for militia leaders to recruit followers into battles, terrorist attacks or pogroms.
There’s been a good deal of attention focused on the role of radio hate speech in fomenting organized massacres in Rwanda and more recently in South Sudan. It seems likely that cell phone networks could play a similar role.
Of course, preventing massacres doesn’t seem to be the government’s primary objective in this case. They’re cutting off communications to keep people from organizing anti-government protests. That’s also becoming a fairly common tactic, though not a particularly effective one.
Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate.