As Ugandans prepared to vote in the presidential and parliamentary elections on 14 January 2021, more and more of the internet gradually slipped out of reach.
The disruption started on 9 January with digital distribution platforms App Store and Play store; followed by social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Instant messaging platforms WhatsApp and Telegram came next before the entire country was finally disconnected on the eve of the election.
In a 13 January letter to telecommunications companies, Ms Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo, the acting executive director of the Uganda Communications Communication, ordered the service providers to temporarily suspend the operation of the internet.
“This suspension should take effect at 7:00pm of 13 January 2021 and continue until otherwise directed.”
President Yoweri Museveni defended the shutdown of social media platforms in a 12 January 2021 address. He said it was a response to Facebook’s decision to delete several accounts linked to the ruling NRM party. Facebook said the accounts were engaged in “manipulating public debate ahead of the elections.”
Mr Museveni said: “If that social channel is going to operate in Uganda, it should be equitably used by everybody who has to use it. If you want to take sides against NRM, then you cannot operate in Uganda. We cannot tolerate this arrogance of anybody coming to decide for us who is good and who is bad.”
Uganda’s history of internet shutdowns
This is not the first election where the government is blocking access to communications. In the run up to the 2006 general election, the government blocked internal access to a critical website, Radio Katwe, for “publishing malicious and false information against the party and its presidential candidate”.
In 2011, it censored SMS and ordered phone companies to intercept text messages with words or phrases including ‘Egypt’, ‘bullet’, ‘Tunisia’, ‘Mubarak’, ‘dictator’, ‘teargas’, ‘army’, ‘police’, ‘gun’, ‘Ben Ali’, ‘UPDF’, ‘people power’ and several words in different local languages.
The government later blocked social media during the post-election walk to work protests and banned live coverage of those protests after television stations showed images of the police’s high-handedness in arresting opposition politicians.
However, in 2016, many Ugandans were able to get around the limited blocks of the internet using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which encrypt internet use, enabling users to bypass the restrictions by tunneling their traffic through servers in another country.
This time around, efforts by Ugandans to use VPNs came to nothing with many VPN servers being blocked. With that the government achieved a total shutdown of the internet, leaving SMS and traditional phone calls as the only means of communication. The shutdown began to be lifted on 18 January.
In the past, protection of national security and public order have been cited as the basis for disruption of digital communications.
This year, the script was different. In a press interview at the National Tally Centre on 16 January, government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said the internet was shut down to “mitigate any cases of electoral violence that could arise as a result of internet misuse, the spread of misinformation and fake news…”
Similarly, while appearing on NBS TV the next day, Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda said threats to peace were delaying the internet restoration.
He said that threats tend to heighten during elections. “We did not want to compromise the security of Uganda, so the government took the decision fully aware of the impact it would have.”
Tough time for media
Media organisations, which stream content online and publish stories on websites, were all affected. Some lucky ones had a way around. Ms Carol Beyanga, a managing editor at Daily Monitor, whose website remained active throughout the shutdown, said they worked with their sister website Daily Nation, based in Nairobi.
“We had envisaged that what happened in 2016 would happen again, so we worked with our colleagues in Nairobi to help us update the websites,” she said.
Getting stories from the field, however, was not easy. Ms Beyanga said: “We had to rely on phone calls. We would call reporters, they narrate what is happening, and we write the stories. Photos came in much later.”
Television stations, which remained a major source of information, struggled as well.
Mr Collins Hinamundi, a news producer at NTV Uganda, said that while the station had deployed more than 100 correspondents across the country, they could not easily get information from them.
“Our plans changed at about 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday and we had to resort to phone calls,” he said. “Reporters who were in areas close to Kampala would send their camera cards on the bus or a taxi to Kampala, while those who were far would use the vehicles that distribute Daily Monitor newspapers and the footage would be delivered the following day.”
Speaking on the NTV Fourth Estate talk show on Sunday, 17 January, Mr Edward Muhumuza, the station’s correspondent at the National Tally Centre at Kyambogo University in Kampala, described the shutdown as a dark time for the media and their audiences.
“You are in an isolated world and you are not connected to any place other than the tally centre,” he said. “So, you have to rely on only what the Electoral Commission [EC] has to give you. We could not ask proper questions because we had no information at all. How do you challenge what the EC chair tells you without proper information? People at the office had to call us to inform us of what they know, then we would ask questions.”
Transparency of the election
The gradual easing of internet restrictions on Monday came as police announced dozens of arrests for alleged election-related violence, and surrounded the headquarters of the main opposition party whose leader is under effective house arrest.
Ms Charity Ahimbisibwe, the executive director of Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy, said it was sad for the government to shut down the internet.
“In terms of transparency of an election, people should be able to share information in real time. We are in an information age and are entitled to that right in the access to information law and Article 29 of the constitution,” she said.
She added that the shutdown was a huge impediment to her organisation’s work observing the election. “To get information from our different observers across the country, we relied on SMS, then we would type everything into the database and do the coding. To verify this information, we had to make phone calls. It was so rudimentary.”
Mr Museveni was declared winner of the 14 January election 58.6% of the vote. His main rival, Mr Robert Kyagulanyi (better known as Bobi Wine, his stage name as a performing musician) came second with 34.8%. He, however, rejected the results terming the election as rigged.
In an interview with Daily Monitor at the weekend, Mr Kyagulanyi said that despite the internet shutdown, he gathered good evidence to present before court to challenge the election results.
Mr Museveni, on the other hand, described the poll as “the most cheating-free election in the 58 years of Uganda’s independence”.
Cost of the shutdown
NetBlocks, which calculates the cost of internet shutdowns, estimates Uganda lost at least $8.9 million (approximately Shs33 billion) over the five days of the total shutdown. The amount is an aggregated cost of indirect losses as well as a direct consequence of businesses staying offline.