Just days ago, the Ugandan government announced that it will now require that influential social media figures and journalists register their online activities to be monitored in an attempt to limit “immoral [and] prejudiced content” posted online, as stated by the Uganda Communications Commission. This crackdown on what is shared online comes days after university lecturer and feminist activist Stella Nyanzi was sentenced to 18 months in jail for “cyber harassment” of Yoweri Museveni after she wrote a Facebook post that was critical of his presidency.
Citing the watchdog organization Unwanted Witness, Reuters reports that in the last two years, at least 33 Ugandans have been questioned by police or charged with cyber-related offences for internet posts that government deemed inappropriate. The digital rights organization worries that these actions severely limit the people’s ability to disseminate information and engage in discourse online as the internet has become less accessible to members of civil society. However, the silencing of Ugandan citizens online is not a new development; the government placed a $20 tax on social media in order to discourage its usage over a year ago.
It is crucial to understand the internet crackdown as a form of violence and suppression being inflicted upon the Ugandan population in a country that characterizes itself as having a democratic, multiparty system. A critical aspect of the multiparty system is the freedom to express differing opinions and to promote open political institutions. Rather than allow the people to use the internet as a platform to participate in political debates, the government has created an adversarial political climate that has detrimental repercussions for those who engage in political discourse that goes against that of Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement party.
The events that have transpired in Uganda speak to a larger conversation to be had about censorship and expression of political dissent in Africa as government crackdowns on online dissent have become more frequent in countries all over the continent such as the DRC, Zimbabwe, and Gabon. The crackdown on dissent presents as a state versus the people mentality which has serious consequences for the promotion of state stability and legitimacy, given that states are willing to go extremes to silence their critics— as was the case with the imprisonment of Stella Nyanzi.
An important consequence of actions taken to suppress political dissent on the internet is the implications that they have on the practice of the rule of law. Because the government chooses to punish solely those it disagrees with, the law is applied unequally which only further strips the state of credibility with its people and sets back the building of long-lasting political institutions. The significance of building on structurally-sound institutions is that strife and conflict tend to be a product of unstable political institutions.
As a result, there is a case to be made that the free expression of political dissent and participation in discourse is an essential feature of maintaining political stability, building trust among citizens, and therefore, avoiding conflict. Given the current technological age and the expansive reach of the internet, Uganda and other African states have a unique opportunity to use the the internet for the purpose of achieving developmental ends and creating strong synergistic linkages between the state and civil society that will serve them better than continuing to foster antagonistic relationships between itself and the people.
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