Internet access cut, social media banned during Uganda elections

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Voters queue to cast their ballots in the presidential elections outside a voting center in Kampala, Uganda, January 14, 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner - RC2M7L9KKL03

Internet access cut, social media banned during Uganda elections

Nairobi, January 14, 2021 – Ugandan authorities should immediately cease all efforts to disrupt internet access in the country and allow the press to cover the country’s elections freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Yesterday, the Uganda Communications Commission, the country’s broadcasting and telecommunication regulator, ordered telecommunications providers to suspend internet services in the country until further notice, according to a statement posted on Facebook by one of the providers, Africell, a separate statement by another company, MTN Uganda, which CPJ reviewed, and a copy of a letter from the commission to Simbanet, which was posted on social media by the NBS Television broadcaster.

Today, Ugandan internet traffic plummeted, according to news reports and data analyses by the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis and Google.   Voters queue to cast their ballots in Kampala, Uganda, on January 14, 2021. Internet access was cut throughout the country during the election. (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

Kyle Spencer, who operates Uganda’s internet exchange point, which routes internet traffic in the country, posted on Twitter and told CPJ in a phone interview that domestic internet traffic in the country fell by 95 percent as a result of the government’s orders.

Voters in Uganda today participated in presidential and parliamentary elections; results of the presidential election are expected within 48 hours, and the voting for local government positions is scheduled to continue until February 3, according to the country’s Electoral Commission.

In the months leading up to the elections, CPJ documented attacks and arrests of journalists as well as new accreditation and registration requirements imposed by authorities.

“After a brutal, months-long crackdown on the media, Uganda’s internet disruption is the latest attempt to keep the country’s citizens in the dark about the ongoing elections and to prevent journalists from reporting on events surrounding the vote,” said CPJ Sub-Saharan Africa Representative Muthoki Mumo. “Ugandan authorities should reverse course and take steps to ensure unrestricted internet access and guarantee that the public is adequately informed during the post-election period.”

Social media networks including Facebook and Instagram, and the messaging program WhatsApp, experienced disruptions in access beginning on January 11, according to media  reports and reporting by the Collaboration for Internet Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), a Uganda-based digital rights group.

On January 12, in a televised address, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said that the government was enforcing a social media shutdown after Facebook closed several government-linked accounts. The social media network had closed those accounts for allegedly being part of an effort to manipulate the election debate, according to reports. In a statement sent via email to CPJ, Facebook declined to comment further.

As of this evening, the Ugandan news websites Nile Post and New Vision have not posted any new articles since yesterday, according to CPJ’s review of their pages; The Observer newspaper and had not posted any tweets during that time.

However, other outlets, including the state-owned Uganda Broadcasting Corporation have continued posting updates on their websites and live-streaming on social media.

Juliet Nanfuka, a researcher and communication officer at CIPESA, told CPJ in a phone interview that, while most of the population had been cut off from data access, it seemed that some facilities like hospitals and banks had maintained some level of access.

CPJ called and texted Uganda Communications Commission spokesperson Ibrahim Bbosa for comment, but he did not answer. CPJ called Ugandan government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo P’Odel, but the calls did not go through.

During Uganda’s last election season in 2016, authorities blocked social media access twice– during voting in February and during the inauguration of President Yoweri Museveni in May, as CPJ documented at the time.

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