In face of unrest, Uganda seeks to block social media websites

The Uganda government sought to block social media platforms in the country in an attempt to clampdown on the ongoing unrest.

The move initiated by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) last week, was ordered by unnamed ‘security agencies’ for fear that those logged onto the  Facebook  and  Twitter  social networks could use them to “connect and share information that incites the public”.

In an April 14 letter to various Internet Service Providers, Mr. Quinto Ojok acting UCC executive director said, “We have received a request from the security agencies that there is need to minimise the use of media that may escalate violence to the public in respect of the ongoing situation due to the demonstration relating to’ Walk to work’, mainly by opposition in the country”.

The letter further reads, “As a stakeholder that has communication infrastructures that host media such as Facebook  and  Tweeter , the commission wishes to request for your indulgence in this matter.”

The continuing protests dubbed ‘Walk To Work’ that started last week spread across the major towns in the country and later turned violent, leaving scores injured and at least 3 people dead. The protests initiated by opposition are rallying people to protest the high prices of food and fuel.

The commission asked the providers including major telecom companies whose millions of customers can also access the two social networks via handheld devices to block them for 24 hours on April 14 leaving many users grumbling about inaccessibility.

The ISPs that were asked to block the social networks include, Orange Uganda, Uganda Telecom, MTN Uganda, Warid Telecom, Airtel Uganda, Africa Online, Afsat Communications, Broadband (U) Ltd, Foris Telecom and Info-com Uganda.

MTN and UTL, the biggest networks denied reports of any blockage.

Mark Kaheru, UTL’s communications manager said, “Uganda Telecom has not blocked Facebook and Twitter. By the time the letter was delivered, the 24 hour deadline had expired.” MTN told its Twitter followers that, “MTN is not blocking Facebook or Twitter. Our stand is clear.”

Mr Godfrey Mutabazi, the UCC Executive Director, who was travelling when the letter was sent out by his junior, told ACME that the regulator’s order had been an “error”. He said it would be rectified.

Human Rights activists have referred to the attempt by UCC as a breach of the right to freedom of expression.

The executive director for Foundation for Human Rights Mr Livingstone Sewanyana, referred to UCC’s move as “…a sign of panic”.

“It is unnecessary and I think it’s a breach of freedom of expression including access to information,” he said. “It shows failure of the State to appreciate that people have a say in how they are governed.”

Mr Sewanyana said UCC should be assisting citizens to access information rather than gag them.

“What it is doing is to stifle independent opinions,” he said. “We understand their thinking considering what happened in Egypt and now in Libya but these steps will not guarantee a peaceful solution. They should revisit the strategy and respond to the public’s concerns to ensure free flow of information,” he said.

Mr.  Gilbert Sendugwa, head of the Africa Freedom of Information Centre, called UCC’s efforts unlawful.

“It is inappropriate and also unlawful. It was uncalled for. Government has a duty to facilitate rather than constrain communication,” he said. “Unless it was issued under a certain provision or law, the ISPs have the right to ignore it.”

UCC did not quote any laws or provisions in the letter against which they wanted the order effected.

Mr Sendugwa added that, “The only exception is if the same channels are used for hate speech and when there is clear evidence of those facilities being used to mobilise for violence. In this case, there are no grounds apart from hearsay.”

This is the second attempt by UCC to limit communications in fear of unrest this year. During the recently concluded presidential elections in February, the commission directed all telecom and bulk SMS service providers to scrutinize and monitor messages with words that were likely to incite violence.

The blocking of social networks comes a few days after media reports that government allegedly issued an order to some television stations and radio stations to stop live broadcasts of the unrest.

The  Daily Monitor  said internet at the newspaper’s premises was interrupted for some time last week crippling its ability to update its website and other web-based media with live feeds.

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