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Uganda’s Internet shutdown history

As usual government’s justification for the shutdown was to guarantee public order and safety in the face of protests and curb the spread of misinformation. The shutdown occurred in two phases where face book was first switched off on 11 January 2021 and this was after face book closed accounts belonging to government officials. Then later the internet gateway was also switched off on 13th January 2021.

As usual government’s justification for the shutdown was to guarantee public order and safety in the face of protests and curb the spread of misinformation. The shutdown occurred in two phases where Facebook was first switched off on 11 January 2021 and this was after Facebook closed accounts belonging to government officials. Then later the internet gateway was also switched off on 13th January 2021.

KAMPALA – This is not the first time that authorities in Uganda are blocking access to online communication platforms. On the election eve of 2016, it blocked social media and mobile money services countrywide (Unwanted witness). Ugandans including journalists then used Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to circumvent social media blockage.

However, in 2021 again, ahead of general elections, authorities ordered service providers to block internet gateways leaving traditional phone calls and SMS as the only means of communication (Unwanted Witness 2021).

The choice by authorities in Uganda to shut down the internet at pre, during, and post-election periods had a compounded effect on the operation and the key role the media plays during elections.

As usual government’s justification for the shutdown was to guarantee public order and safety in the face of protests and curb the spread of misinformation. The shutdown occurred in two phases where facebook was first switched off on 11 January 2021 and this was after Facebook closed accounts belonging to government officials. Then later the internet gateway was also switched off on 13th January 2021.

This was generally to prevent people from sharing information with others which would allegedly promote violence during and after elections. This meant that internet services were completely blocked including broadband carriers and mobile data services so people couldn’t go online on any device (Unwanted Witness 2021).

For a country that had announced digital political campaigning as a form of movement restriction to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, internet disruption came at a high cost to media freedom, citizens’ fundamental human rights, and democracy for Uganda.

Internet shutdowns are often accompanied by military operations making it difficult for documentation by citizen journalists and reporters. This also led to the emergence of internet refugees as journalists endangered their safety by taking hazardous journeys to areas with internet access. This mainly happened in border districts where journalists crossed to countries like Tanzania, Congo, and Kenya to access the internet.

Citizens are usually updated on their different social media platforms even before news on either televisions, radios, or newspapers. But during the internet shutdown, they had to wait for the news anchor on televisions and radios and that’s what they depended on. If you missed the news on those platforms then you couldn’t get informed any other way which left the public in the dark.

Internet being among the primary channels for journalists to access information, its unavailability made it hard for them to continue to access and disseminate information to the public. The frequent clampdown on internet access prevented them from securely communicating with sources or publishing on time.

Most of the journalists that were involved in covering the elections described the shutdown as a dark time for the media and their listenership (Digital Human Rights Lab 2021). Their right to access information through the internet and then disseminate it to the public was denied.

They resorted to traditional means for example messages, phone calls, a physical appearance that complicated their work.

Based on this background, Unwanted Witness decided to carry out research on the impact of the internet shutdown on the work of journalists and media houses who relay information to the citizens.

Impact of the shutdown

On the whole, the internet shutdown affected the country in many ways, from reducing productivity to causing losses in ways that the internet could have served. It generally slowed down the economy and had a negative impact on many other sectors of society.

The role mass media plays in keeping the citizenry abreast with timely information and monitoring the electoral process was crippled. A free and fair election is not all about the freedom to vote and the knowledge of how to cast a vote, but also a participatory process where voters engage in public debate and have adequate information about policies, candidates, and the electoral process itself in order to make informed choices.

Indeed a democratic election with no media freedom or stifled media freedom is a contradiction, more so after the government announced a digital or scientific electoral process.

The net negative effect of the internet shutdown was felt more amongst Journalists and media owners. For media houses, it became increasingly hard for them to communicate. For the field reporters, it became increasingly difficult to get to send their reports on time. Likewise, online media journalists and businesses couldn’t share information.

Being that the shutdown was done during times when Covid-19 was ravaging the world, the internet had become a safe tool to minimize the spread. Its closure meant that journalists worked in fear as they had to travel physically using public means to deliver their work.

Notably, effective media coverage of the general elections in Uganda was curtailed by the internet shutdown as pointed out by 80% of the respondents. On the whole, the shutdown had a negative impact on both the quality and quantity of the news output.

For example, mobile money services were interrupted, so the means to facilitate journalists with fares, lunch, wages were equally curtailed which impacted greatly on the quality and timeliness of news and information.

Other specific impacts included;

It made it harder to effectively communicate the news in full.

Affected the timely delivery of the news as they sought other ways that were slower than using the internet channel.

Made it complicated to research and reference other news items.

They’re not able to share and fully document information.

Access to the news was affected because of the delayed delivery.

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