Uganda has cut off its entire internet hours to its election polls opening

Outside the Ugandan electoral commission compound in Kampala Jan. 13, 2021.
Outside the Ugandan electoral commission compound in Kampala Jan. 13, 2021.
Image: REUTERS/Baz Ratner
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After more than a month of targeted restrictions, Ugandan authorities have, in an unprecedented move, shut down the internet in the country hours to the Jan.14 polls, a move that has been widely criticized.

At around 5.00pm local time, a letter from Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the regulator of the communications sector in the country, ordering the shutdown until further notice started circulating on social media. By this time, many users in the East African country could no longer access the internet although the complete shutdown was effected at 7pm.

“This suspension should take effect at 7pm this day of 13th January 2021 and continue until otherwise directed,” the letter signed by Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo, the acting executive director of UCC reads in part. The country’s two largest mobile networks MTN Uganda and Airtel Uganda account for the majority of the country’s 20 million internet users. It means ordinary Ugandan voters, opposition party operatives, and election observers will have fewer means of communications as the polls open on Thursday (Jan. 14).

Media organizations which stream content online and publish stories on websites have all been affected causing an information blackout.  Even the UCC’s own website was no longer accessible as Quartz Africa went to press. There are also reports that specific cellphones have been targeted and can neither make calls nor send text messages. One of the affected was Barbara Itungo, the wife of presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi a.k.a Bobi Wine.

The decision to shut down the internet, which dwarfs similar 2016 measures, was reached following a joint security meetings and after an assessment that the shutdown of social media and digital distribution platforms was not effective. On Tuesday (Jan. 12) president Yoweri Museveni defended the blocking of social media as a response to US tech giant Facebook deleting pro-regime accounts engaged in public manipulation. Just weeks earlier the government regulator had asked YouTube to take down anti-Museveni video channels.

Many Ugandans including government officials backing the actions on social media already had Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) installed on their device and would normally be able to circumvent a social media block, but an internet block means even VPNs are of limited use for most people.

The Uganda government has previously asserted that social media played a key role in the mobilizing masses during the November riots in which more than 50 people were killed following the arrest of two presidential candidates. The military has been out in force on the streets of  the capital Kampala with soldiers patrolling major neighborhoods.

“The move is clearly intended to silence the few accredited election observers, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and bloggers who are monitoring the elections,” says Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for East Africa in response to the initial social media shutdown. “Such shutdowns are a violation of the right to freedom of expression and access to information. Ugandan authorities must immediately lift all blanket restrictions, and end their wave of political repression ahead of the general election.”

Internet shutdowns have become a growing technique by governments around the world to control the sharing of information particularly in developing countries and increasingly led in African countries. Access Now reported not just an increase in internet shutdowns in 2019, but also a “trend toward sustained and prolonged shutdowns” with 35 incidents of internet shutdowns lasting longer than seven days last year. Chad, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Eritrea, Mauritania, Sudan, and Zimbabwe are among the 19 countries that fully or partially shuttered internet access for more than seven days.

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