Social media shutdown in Uganda will become a norm – analysts

Blocking social media use in Uganda is likely to become a routine practice by the government, analysts have said.

Mr Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer, said the “growth and penetration of social media has outstripped the capacity of the government to provide a regulatory framework for it”.

He said the fact that the government can shut down social media and “gets away with it” will certainly “embolden it to do so regularly or when and if they please”.

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The contributions of social media towards the Arab Spring uprising could have scared the government, said human rights activist Peter G. Magelah in explaining recent cases of social media crackdown in Uganda.

The Arab Spring was a wave of public demonstrations that started in 2010 in North Africa and saw the toppling of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Several analysts attribute the mobilisation power of social media to the uprisings.

The comments by Mr Magelah, a programme manager with Chapter Four UG, follow the government shutdown of social media as President Yoweri Museveni took oath of office for a fifth term on 12 May.

Despite the shutdown, many Ugandans continued to use social media through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) — a technology that dodges censorship by redirecting one’s Internet activity to a computer in a different country.

This was the case on 18 February when Ugandans woke up to go to the polls but were surprised that they couldn’t connect with the world via social media. The government had directed telecoms to switch off social media and mobile money services, a ban that continued for three days.

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Ms Rosebell Kagumire, a journalist and blogger, said it will be difficult for the government to always block social media access as and when it pleases because doing so will affect revenue of telecom companies who are major internet service providers, as they are major taxpayers.

She said other than blocking social media, the government should understand how the platform works and use it to its advantage. “Forceful takedown of social media is not doing government any good and cannot reverse the current image of this being a dictatorial and undemocratic path we are on,” she said.

Ms Maria Burnett, a senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, said that the government’s blocking of social media is one of the shadows that will hover over Mr Museveni’s government as he starts another five-year term as president.

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Speaking during the third edition of the Uganda National Journalism Awards in Kampala on 20 April, former Principal Judge James Ogoola castigated the government for shutting down social media on Election Day.

“The act of closure was bad. The timing of the closure was worse. The intention and the implications of the closure were horrifying,” Justice Ogoola said.

The government has always cited security reasons for shutting down social media.

VOX POPS: What the shutdown means

Mr Michael Niyitegeka, Social Media Expert and Trainer: “The social media ban demonstrates our levels of intolerance. As a government we will clamp down on anything we presume to be likely to bring out a message other than our own. That has implications on how you are perceived by external parties especially given the fact that we depend on tourism which is largely driven by foreigners.”

Ms Patricia Kahill – Kahill Insights: As a result of the shutdown, our online advertising has been affected because our adverts are location based. It means we have gone back to Dark Age; it also means Ugandans are learning about the power of social media and how free speech is a threat to the government.”

 Mr Nicholas Opiyo, Team Leader and Advocate, Chapter Four UG: “The shutdown of social media casts our government as intolerant and autocratic. It denies the citizens the right to access and share information so as to make informed decisions about their lives and governance.”

Ms Rosebell Kagumire, journalist and blogger: “With freedom of assembly limited, social media has become like Bimeza and rallies where people express themselves without fear. So government has to come up with excuses like national security which don’t need any explanation and accountability to block Ugandans from expressing opinions that it doesn’t want to hear. But looking at the current political tide, government in the next five years will have a hard time and switching off social media won’t be the answer.”

Mr Stuart Akankwasa, Fortitude Solutions: I don’t think the government and Museveni give a damn anymore. The mask is off.  Museveni knows for a fact most people who take part in riots are not on Twitter but still bans it. He knows it’s ineffective but will do it anyway just to show you he can. It also helps him put the media in check; you go against the order, they switch you off like they did with social media. Museveni and Uganda are lucky there are not many people like [Kizza] Besigye who will hit back. So most of us are going to complain, make noise, hashtags but then quickly go back to work and look for rent. I’m just disappointed the media and telecom owners have not put up or pretended to put up a protest. They serve the people or the government.”

 Mr Peter G. Magelah, Programme Manager, Chapter Four UG: “The shutdown affects freedom of expression which is part of democracy. For democracy to thrive, we need people to get information on different issues (whether we agree with them or not) and people to express themselves. Given the fact that social media has become a major platform of expression in Uganda, blocking it shuts up citizens from imparting and receiving information.”

Harriet Anena

Harriet Anena is ACME’s Special Projects Officer hanena@acme-ug.org @ahpetite

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