On the 9th of January, Irene Sewankambo, the Uganda Communications Commission’s Executive Director ordered the closure of social media platforms and messaging applications such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Service providers like Airtel and MTN Uganda also informed subscribers about a general suspension. President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni is entering his sixth presidential term and Bobi Wine, who is his main rival and a pop star turned politician, has a considerably influential presence on social media platforms.
Bobi Wine himself expressed his discontent: “The election is being stolen and rigged. By the mere fact that I have been blocked from campaigning [on the streets], I am not allowed to have posters or billboards, and I am blocked from TV and radio.” In addition, Facebook had closed dozens of pro-government accounts for the reason that they were “fake and duplicate accounts.” In contrast, Museveni, accused Facebook and others of “interfering with the electoral process.” Ultimately, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa Sarah Jackson said, “Amid concerns over threatening rhetoric from high-ranking government officials, use of violence and an escalating crackdown on political opposition – it is alarming that the Ugandan authorities have suspended social media networks.”
Undeniably, restricting access to information platforms in the frame of presidential elections follows typical patterns of political authoritarianism and constitutes a violation to the right to freedom of expression and access to information. It is clear that the move intends to silence the few accredited election observers, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, activists, journalists and bloggers who are monitoring the elections. Therefore, NGOs claim that such shutdowns are a clear violation to freedom of expression and access to information. Ugandan authorities must unconditionally lift all blanket restrictions to end their wave of political repression.
In the context of Museveni claiming victory, the club of supporters of Mr Wine together with his National Unity Platform party would voice their outrage in country-wide demonstrations, hence these closures were ordered by communications regulators to suppress and hinder the hopeful supporters. It is useful to note that in 2016, such media shutdowns occurred in previous Ugandan elections. Furthermore, in 2011, authorities instructed internet service providers to temporarily block access to Facebook and Twitter for 24 hours and authorities ordered telecommunication companies to block social media access on mobile phones.
Overall, the Uganda social media ban raises questions over regulation in Africa. Social media companies need to have a greater presence on the African continent with local staff to prevent the enforcement of authoritarian policies. The restricted access to social media goes hand in hand with the globally weak access to internet which the African continent has been subject to since the beginning of the new digital era. This gives way for numerous authoritarian regimes to assert their hold on populations that are powerless to hope for more democratic elections in the future.
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