Updated at 7.30pm EAT.
Voters in Uganda went to the polls this morning (Feb. 18) to vote for the country’s next president in what is considered to be the most competitive election since the advent of multiparty democracy a decade ago.
As the nation’s voters woke up and went to cast their ballots, Ugandans found that access to social media was blocked.
Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist, told Quartz she was unable to connect to either Twitter or Facebook, even though she could read her email and access other websites. She logged into a VPN, or virtual private network which masks her location, then was able to get on Twitter:
“From 6am-9:30am I couldn’t access the sites, so I am using VPN,” Kagumire told Quartz. “Many Ugandans on Twitter [are] using VPNs. We are not sure what is going on but it is evident internet connections [were] not working when Uganda opened polls. There’s a problem and it is only with Twitter, Facebook and, to some smaller extent, Whatsapp.”
She was not the only one experiencing this problem. Other Ugandans, also presumably using VPNs, reported difficulties connecting to social media.
Around noon, Godfrey Mutabazi, the executive director of Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), confirmed to local TV station NTV Uganda that the government had shut down social media at the request of the electoral commission.
But the electoral commission said on Twitter any questions on the issue should be referred to the UCC.
And later in the afternoon, MTN Uganda, one of the country’s leading mobile carriers, also confirmed that the UCC had instructed the company to block social media access in the country.
The presidential campaign pits incumbent Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country for almost three decades, against seven other candidates, including his ex-doctor Kizza Besigye and former prime minister Amama Mbabazi. And unlike past elections, Museveni faces a challenge.
An opinion poll released in January showed the race tightening with Museveni garnering 51% support with Besigye at 32% and Mbabazi at 12%. While the expectation is Museveni is likely to come out on top, the question is whether he can win enough votes to avoid a run-off. To win outright, he will need 50% plus one vote.
Recently, violence has marred the campaign. Besigye was arrested earlier this week but later released for what officials say was illegal campaigning. Protests following his arrests led to clashes with the police which resulted in one death. Some fear that blocking social media, a tool that Ugandans increasingly use to access information, could lead to more confusion and panic, especially if results are close.
“Already we have seen many areas [delaying] voting…four hours after polls were supposed to open. If Ugandans feel they have no way of reporting this, it can have consequences on the acceptability of the outcome,” Kagumire says. “Social media is the only uncontrolled terrain in Ugandan media. Ugandans can say what they want without filter. So if authorities want to filter some information…it only fuels further fears of rigging.”
Twitter declined to comment on the block and referred Quartz to a tweet the company sent out later in the evening.
Meanwhile, Facebook has yet to respond to Quartz’s request for comment.