Ugandan authorities have ordered internet service providers in the East African country to block access to social media sites ahead of elections on 14 January 2021, the latest in a string of attacks on access to information and freedom of expression rights.
In a letter, the Uganda Communications Commission directed internet service providers to “immediately suspend any access and use, direct or otherwise, of all social media platforms and online messaging applications over your network until further notice”.
The social media ban could have been in retaliation to Facebook banning some government accounts for alleged “inauthentic behaviour”.
A day earlier, on 11 January, Facebook had blocked some government accounts alleging that a network connected with the Ugandan Ministry of Information had been using fake and duplicate accounts to impersonate users and boost the popularity of posts.
“They used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users, re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular than they were,” a statement from Facebook said.
Ugandan authorities shot back, accusing Facebook of trying to manipulate the election.
Long-serving leader, President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 35 years, faces Bobi Wine in the 14 January elections.
MISA Zimbabwe position
Whatever the justification, Uganda’s ban of social media platforms is an assault on freedom of expression and access to information, particularly ahead of elections. During elections, citizens need access to all information so they can make informed decisions about their future and how they are governed.
In addition, the ban of social media platforms violates the Revised Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, which guarantees individuals the right to receive information as well as the right to express and disseminate information.
Furthermore, MISA Zimbabwe reminds the Ugandan authorities to be cognisant of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, which stipulates:
Everyone has the right to use the Internet and digital technologies in relation to freedom of assembly and association, including through social networks and platforms.
The United Nations has in the past spoken strongly against internet shutdowns, advising: “Development and human rights protections are strengthened in tandem when networks remain open, secure, and stable.”
A pattern seems to be developing in Africa where the internet and social media platforms are throttled or shutdown ahead of elections or other major political events.
In October, Tanzania throttled the internet and blocked access to some social media networks, while in 2019, Zimbabwe shut down the internet during protests.
As the Zimbabwe case showed, shutting down the internet or social media, is not only anathema to democracy, but it restricts the flow of business-related information and communications including Internet-based banking services and transactions, a development that drives away investors.
MISA Zimbabwe stands in solidarity with freedom of expression organisations in Uganda and in Africa calling on the government of Uganda to allow access to social media sites.