Freedom of speech and fair elections are the cornerstones of any democratic society. However, there are a handful of governments that violate these rights, suppress their citizens, block internet access, and keep people under surveillance. We’ve made a list of elections where violations and foul play are likely to occur in 2021. So what are the elections to watch this year? And what can we do to protect free speech and democracy?
There are many elections scheduled to occur around the world in 2021, and most of them are expected to be reasonably fair and transparent. However, some countries have restricted internet access in past elections and there’s a real chance they will do so again. Here’s the list of elections to watch for violations.
May 23 — Legislative election
Vietnam monitors what its citizens do online and blocks country-related websites covering human rights, political news, and religious topics.
In 2016, the government temporarily blocked Facebook as a response to protests in multiple cities. A couple of years later, Vietnam threatened to block Facebook permanently if it didn't agree to censor local political content, which resulted in the tech giant bowing to government demands.
June 5 — General election
While Ethiopia is one of the emerging economies of East Africa, the country has a reputation of limiting the internet for its citizens. There is only one state-owned internet service provider in Ethiopia, so it’s easy for the government to impose various restrictions.
Throughout the years, the Ethiopian government has blocked media outlets, websites, and even TV stations that criticized it. In 2020, following the unrest in Tigray, the government enforced an internet blackout for the whole region. If any protests break out during these elections, there’s a chance that more restrictions will be imposed.
June 12 — Legislative election
In 2016, Algeria blocked access to social media in order to fight cheating in secondary school exams. While this sounds extreme, Algeria has a long history of internet restrictions and freedom of speech violations.
In 2019, the internet was shut down in some parts of the country as a result of public demonstrations against the reelection of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Will it be the same story in June? Only time will tell.
June 18 — Presidential election
Iran is known for heavy internet censorship, restricting access to services like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. When in 2019 huge anti-government protests broke out, the government blocked the internet to prevent journalists and activists from sharing information.
August 12 — General election
While Zambia’s constitution guarantees various rights and freedoms of speech, its government is known for suppressing opposing views. In 2016, during a general election, the government banned media outlets that criticized it and arrested members of an opposing party.
Following the reelection of President Lungu, protests have sprung up in the country, which resulted in an internet shutdown.
September 19 — Legislative election
Russia has always played by its own rules: imprisoning journalists, shutting down the internet during protests, and blocking websites. While a part of the country is in Europe, it doesn't share the same values as the rest of the old continent.
In 2019, Russia tested its “domestic internet”, which would give the government more control over services its citizens use. A new law also came into effect recently which states that all smartphones sold in the country can only contain government-approved apps. Cybersecurity experts have no doubt that this law will be used for mass surveillance and control.
October 10 — General election
In 2019, following protests against corruption, unemployment, and poor public services, the government cut off the internet. It started with the blocking of social media platforms, and then evolved into a massive shutdown with 75% of the country left without internet access.
The elections in 2021 were originally scheduled for June, but were postponed until October, as authorities requested more time to implement legal and logistical measures to organize fair elections.
November 7 — General election
Until 2018 Nicaragua was considered a tropical paradise loved by travelers from all over the world. However, following the protests against President Daniel Ortega and unprecedented violence, most of them fled the country.
During this period, internet disruptions were reported in various parts of the country. In November, Ortega will seek his third consecutive term in the office and many believe he has enough power to suppress any critical voices.
December 4 — Presidential election
In 2016, just before the presidential election, the Gambian government shut down the internet and blocked international calls. However, this didn’t help, as the long-term ruler Yahya Jammeh lost to the candidate of the opposing party.
While the new president brought hope for a corrupted country, the government of Adama Barrow seems to follow the same principles as its predecessor.
Authoritarian governments around the world occasionally block internet access to prevent protests, silence opposition voices, and avoid information about election fraud spreading outside the country. In many countries, journalists, politicians, and anyone else criticizing the government may risk imprisonment or even death.
A VPN (virtual private network) is one of the most powerful tools to circumvent internet restrictions. It redirects your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel and masks your IP address. Here’s how a VPN benefits people from repressive regimes:
Here’s an example. Facebook is blocked in China, Iran, Syria, and other countries, cutting off their citizens from the outside world. However, if you’re in Iran, you can connect to a VPN server in a country where Facebook is available, and use it freely. A VPN allows you to stay ahead of government surveillance and access restricted services.
NordVPN has long been advocating the free internet and supporting people from authoritarian countries. In 2020, NordVPN received over 7,100 Emergency VPN access requests, mostly from Iran, Hong Kong, and Venezuela.
In 2019, a series of protests started in Hong Kong following the China-backed proposal of new extradition laws. People were dissatisfied with Beijing’s growing influence and violations of their rights. Protests continued throughout 2020, while authorities censored online speech, collected user information, and blocked websites.
NordVPN received 175 requests from journalists in 2020, and many of them were related to protests in Hong Kong. 470 VPN licenses were donated to support NGOs and activists fighting this battle with China. During major political upheavals, connecting to the internet via a VPN is often the only way to communicate with the outside world.