Internet Shutdown of Social Media in Uganda threats to online expression
Ugandans many of whom are firm users of online expression platforms woke up on polling day to realise all their social media platforms such as Facbook, Twitter and Whatsapp were disconnected. The shameful and unwarranted shutdown of social media platforms by Telecom companies were on the orders of the Uganda’s communications regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC). Telecom companies such as MTN, Airtel, Africel responded to the heed by Government and disabled all social media platforms.
The Uganda’s election which started with high voter turnout on polling day degenerated into chaos and protests as there were reported cases of ballot stuffing, intentional late arrival of polling materials especially in the country’s capital Kampala and neighbouring Wakiso District which is predominantly opposition leaning. The polls which have seen arrests and detention of opposition figures including the Opposition Leader Kiiza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and party stalwarts is one of the shocks Ugandans are witnessing of a regime accused of clinging onto power and violently cracking on dissenting voices and opinions.
The Ugandan Authorities have previously demonstrated immense interest in spying and surveillance of its Citizens especially those who are in opposition as demonstrated by a report by Privacy international earlier last year. The country acquired sophisticated surveillance software at the close of 2015, when the military bought Finfisher’s malware intrusion software, which allows the infection of devices and monitoring by operators of the software. This year the government has also intimidated and attacked journalists, paralyzing journalist Andrew Lwanga from the waist down for covering a street protest in January.
According to press reports, Tweets and SMS sent by Telecos the Uganda Communications Commission cited an unspecified threat to national security to justify blocking access to Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp at around 8 a.m. local time, an hour after voting began. Access to the services remained blocked on mobile phones and laptops/computers even on the third day as vote tallying continues.
According to reports from CIPESA however, Tech-savvy Ugandans keen to keep information on the electioneering process flowing turned to sharing information on proxies and apps that enable circumventing the blockage through Virtual Private Networks (VPN).
Henry Maina, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa explained that “this ban on social media platforms is part of a number pervasive systemic measures by the government of Uganda to limit freedom of expression and access to information during the election period. Blanket bans on social media cannot be justified under international law and are wholly disproportionate.” “At a time when the world’s gaze is on Uganda and the Presidential elections, we call on the Ugandan authorities to immediately revoke the blocking of social media and allow Ugandans to exercise their right to freedom of expression, as well as their right to participate in a free and open election process,” added Maina