Ugandan government blocks social media a day to elections

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The Ugandan government has blocked access to social media platforms in the East African country just two days before January 14, 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections.

In a statement dated January, 12, 2021, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) ordered internet service providers in the country,  to “immediately suspend any access and use” of all messaging apps and social media platforms until further notice.

Many Ugandans had long anticipated internet-related restrictions given a similar move five years ago for the 2016 elections.

There is a widespread belief the social media blocks are the latest in a series of events to favor the incumbent Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to continue his close to 35-year reign.

With open air political rallies restricted on the premise of curtailing the Covid-19 spread and candidates and their supporters brutalized, the internet and social media has been a vital arena of politicking for either side of the political divide.

Some of the affected platforms include WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which are the most popular   in the country. Others are Signal, Viber and Telegram.

There are also reports the regulator has provided a list of virtual private networks (VPNs)—often used to circumvent local internet restrictions—and ordered telecom operators to block them.

In a televised address late on Tuesday (Jan. 12), also broadcast on social media platforms, President Museveni, 76, defended the social media shutdown as a response to Facebook’s closure of accounts of the ruling NRM “message senders”. Facebook closed the accounts of politicians in Uganda except that of the president.

President Museveni has however apologized for the “inconvenience” to users insisting that he cannot tolerate the “arrogance” of anybody coming to decide for Uganda “who is good and who is bad”.

The Ugandan government has in the past month launched a series of targeted measures on the internet prior to the social media shutdown. It started with requests to tech companies to block some anti-regime users to complaints from users of a slowed internet network.

On January 9, 2021, it emerged that digital distribution platforms such as Google’s Play Store had been blocked in attempts to prevent people from downloading VPNs which can bypass local ISPs.

In the 2016 polls, the shutdown of social media happened on polling day sending citizens in a rush to download VPNs to continue accessing the affected platforms.

A subsequent controversial social media tax was later introduced in September 2020, tanking the number of internet users and revenue and pushing millions to VPNs.

The Ugandan government, which blocked mobile money services used by millions on polling day, introduced a tax on the service which flopped prompting government to revise it.

Show of force

President Yoweri Museveni

On Tuesday, the streets of Kampala were lined with military vehicles and personnel from different units. Military police personnel were captured in videos assaulting supporters holding Robert Kyagulanyi a.k.a Bobi Wine posters.

Kyagulanyi also accused the police and the military of raiding his home and arresting his security personnel. Police denies the allegations.  He also said another of his drivers had been killed.

Military fighter jets and choppers have been deployed in the country’s airspace. The display of might which includes soldiers covered in leaves and singing war songs has been criticized as part of further voter suppression efforts by the incumbent in the capital Kampala and surrounding areas which are pro-opposition.  Presidential candidates were banned from campaigning in these areas ostensibly to prevent the spread of Covid19, a reason which was debunked.

On Tuesday morning, three presidential candidates held a joint press briefing in last-ditch efforts to rally people to come out massively and vote.  Opposition leader and four-time presidential candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye, who spoke at the briefing said the violence in the 2021 campaigns characterized by killings and enforced disappearances was unprecedented.

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