KAMPALA —Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) who ordered internet service providers to shut down social media and messaging applications, just two days before elections has now listed over 100 virtual private networks (VPNs) and distributed them to ISPs with orders to block them.
In a letter seen by AFP, UCC executive director Irene Sewankambo ordered telecommunications companies to “immediately suspend any form of access and use” of social media and online messaging platforms.
An industry insider who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity said that the order was first communicated in “nasty and aggressive” phone calls to the telecommunications companies on Tuesday morning.
Its reported that the order was retaliation for Facebook deleting pro-government accounts for seeking to manipulate public debate and spreading dangerous propaganda ahead of the election.
Facebook said Monday that the accounts were linked to the Ministry of Information and Technology. UCC falls under the Ministry of ICT who orchestrated the plot to spread malicious propaganda.
The list of banned social media sites include Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Signal and Viber.
On Monday a list of over 100 virtual private networks (VPNs) was distributed to internet service providers by the UCC with orders to block them, according to the insider.
It is not clear if ISP can block VPNs
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.