KAMPALA — As the 2021 election approaches, Uganda authorities have directed Internet Service Providers in the country to switch off Internet Services on polling day —January 14, in what critics have described as a crackdown on political dissent.
Some of the services, authorities want disconnected on polling day include WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Mobile Money Services, traditional calls and filters in SMS services.
“Mobile data services (Country wide)-Excluding NON-GSM, Mobile data service (Regional cluster) Excluding NON-GSM, Mobile data services (Country wide) including NON-GSM, and mobile data (Regional cluster) including NON-GSM” reads the directive to ISPs.
Authorities also added: “Voice, SMS and Data (country wide and full network shutdown, Voice, SMS and Data (Network shutdown on Regional cluster). Data (country wide excluding dedicated APN, Data (Regional cluster excluding dedicated APN and finally MOMO services both country wide and regional cluster”.
Since the 2016 elections, there has been no change in the legal framework that allows the government to restrict the rights to freedom of expression and access to information online.
According to the 2016 State of Internet Freedom in Africa report, the 2013 Communications Act gives UCC broad powers and functions under Section 5 that permits the communications regulator to “monitor, inspect, license, supervise, control, and regulate communications services” and to “set standards, monitor, and enforce compliance relating to content.”
At the request of the government, the UCC used this section to order ISPs to block access to social media and mobile money services during the 2016 elections.
The government continues to weaponize these laws to control public debate and to silence political dissent, particularly at times of elections.
Government justifies these shutdowns by citing national security concerns and fears of the spread of fake election results, but critics say authorities fear that citizens will organize protests or expose election malfeasance.
In Uganda, the internet has become a battleground where the government attempts to silence a growing online population voicing dissent.
For years, Ugandan authorities have deployed different tactics to stifle political dissent and keep the ruling National Resistance Movement party and President Yoweri Museveni in power.
The 2016 disruption was ordered by security agencies and the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), which regulates the telecommunications sector, online publications, broadcasting (both radio and television), film industry, postal and courier services.
The same day, President Museveni told journalists that he ordered the blocking of social media: “Steps must be taken for security to stop so many getting in trouble, it is temporary because some people use those pathways for telling lies,” he said.
These shutdowns interfered with the rights and daily lives of Ugandans who use the internet and social media platforms to access information, express views and conduct everyday business online. During the weeks prior to the 2016 elections, Ugandans actively tweeted and debated about the elections using hashtags like #UgandaDecides and #UGDebate16.
Even with the social media bans in place, many Ugandans continued to post about the elections using Virtual Private Networks or VPNs. On election day, citizens were able to share updates on late arrivals of voting materials at various stations, reports of election malpractice, and provisional election results on social media.
Human rights activists say that targeted shutdowns during election periods slow down communication, just when access to information and citizen expression are most needed.
Rights activists fear that during a shutdown, human rights violations by the state may go unreported.
On July 1, 2016, the United Nations passed a resolution by consensus that condemned intentional internet shutdowns as a violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and argues that the rights to free expression apply online as well as offline.
This is a wakeup call for civil societies to champion internet freedom around the world. Governments can be pressured on the economic damage a shutdown causes. The public needs to be empowered to air their concerns about shutdowns to governments. At the same time, citizens need to be informed that there are limits to the freedom of expression, which typically do not extend to defamation or calls for violence.