The publication of this article was delayed due to the internet shutdown in Algeria.
Like many others who heavily rely on the internet in their professions, Algerian journalist and translator Hamdi Baala postponed his work due to the country-wide internet blackout, which took place during exams between June 11 and 15.
Algerian authorities have resorted to this measure for the past seven years to “prevent cheating” during the national baccalaureate exams. In fact, in 2016, the government began restricting internet access after exam questions were leaked on social media immediately after they were distributed to students.
Baala told SMEX he had to postpone any work that required communication with others and instead focused on offline tasks such as translation, reviewing, and editing. “I need internet access to send my work, which means I will have to wait until exams are over and the internet is restored,” the Algerian journalist explained. He added that shutdowns caused delays in the news cycle of up to several hours, “as if we were still in the 1990s.”
Other journalists working for digital platforms faced a similar problem, primarily when covering urgent topics. Mehdi Dahak, journalist and director of the sports website DZfoot, told SMEX that he worked with his team overnight to compensate for lost time during the shutdowns to publish news. “This severely disrupts our work, especially since most of our readers are Facebook and Twitter users, which reduces our website visits and affects our revenue,” Dahak added.
Internet access “for the privileged only”
Internet shutdowns in Algeria caused financial losses for many companies that rely on digital marketing. Yet, the impact was disproportionate. Noura, an employee at a German non-profit in Algeria, said in an interview with SMEX that some international organizations were not affected by the internet shutdown.
“As office employees, we were not affected thanks to an agreement between Germany and Algeria, which grants us uninterrupted internet access. Nonetheless, the organization’s field workers were the ones impacted. We could not contact them during the day, which disrupted our work and collaboration.
“I was the reason why the visa application of one of our German contributors was denied last year, as I could not send the invitation to the consulate on time. I did not have the time to send it from the office, and I could not send it from home due to the internet shutdown,” Noura said, adding that a high-level meeting between German and Algerian parties (some official) was canceled due to the shutdown.
Journalists are not the only ones harmed by internet shutdowns. In an interview with SMEX, Nassira ben Youssef, an employee at the Vocational Training Center in Skikda (eastern Algeria), explained that her “daily work at the center requires internet access, both internally between employees and externally with other training institutions.”
Sarah Zahaf, a facilitator at a local tourism agency in Algiers, believes that tourism agencies bear the brunt of the losses resulting from internet shutdowns: “Shutdowns impact our workflow by disrupting communication with our foreign clients. Our agency suffered financial losses estimated at 10% per day due to non-flexible travel tickets and bookings, not to mention being unable to meet the needs of incoming clients.”
Internet shutdowns undermine the national economy
There are no official reports documenting the economic losses caused by internet shutdowns, but some economists have estimated them to be around USD 50 million per day. Blocking mobile data also causes losses which in turn amount to nearly USD 5 million per day. In this context, digitization expert Younes Grar confirmed that internet shutdowns severely impacted Algeria’s national economy, with losses estimated at USD 388 million in 2020.
The number of people affected by shutdowns grows every year, considering that internet users are steadily increasing. The number of fixed internet users is five million, compared to 3.5 million subscribers in early 2020, according to an official statement issued last May by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.
At the same time, each year, more people are becoming critical of internet shutdowns, seeing that they cause massive losses and harm local and international sectors, institutions, and organizations. Among those critics is the former president of the Movement of Society for Peace, Abderrazak Makri, who stated that: “Those who have been deceived by the allegations of the authorities, claiming that we have a real economy with good outcomes in terms of improving the business environment and growth, need only reflect on the five-day internet shutdown during the baccalaureate examinations.
“Imagine if we had a real economy as they claim. Imagine the scale of economic losses that would result from the internet shutdown. Imagine living under an effective rule of law: What would be the value of the compensation that authorities who shut down the internet pay to affected economic establishments?”
Discontent and sarcasm on social media
The statement by the Minister of Education Abdelhakim Belabed last year sparked widespread discontent among citizens and social media users. People on Facebook mocked Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s statement from two years ago, in which he promised “not to tolerate internet shutdowns.”
The outrage on social media in Alegria last year was a reaction to the unfortunate case of Ibtihal Bazah, a student who had received multiple national and international awards in mental calculation after she was denied the opportunity to represent her country and participate remotely in an international competition hosted by Germany.
“It is clear that internet shutdowns did not prevent cheating. Truth be told, a country that shuts down the internet entirely for a simple exam clearly does not trust its educational system to prevent students from bringing their smartphones to the exam room. This is a clear indication of failure. The only outcome of this policy, which has been in place for seven consecutive years, is punishing millions of people for an entire week,” said Baala.
The problem is not that the government is helpless in preventing exam leaks and cheating. Many experts, education unions, and digital specialists have in fact proposed different solutions to mitigate fraud and prevent the leaking of exam questions without harming the national economy and denying 40 million Algerians their right to access the internet. Among these solutions is preventing attempts to leak exam questions within each center and taking the necessary measures against specific fraud cases.