Museveni confirms he closed Facebook

For the past few years, the internet in Uganda has become a battleground where the government attempts to silence a growing online population voicing dissent.

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President Museveni while addressing the country on Tuesday January 12,2021|Courtesy Photo.

President Museveni has broken silence on the recent blocking of accounts belonging to some of his officials and supporters of the ruling NRM party by Facebook.

While addressing the country ahead of the January,14 elections, Mr Museveni said for Facebook to block some of the users, particularly from the NRM, it was an act of arrogance

“There is no way somebody can come to play with our country to decide who is good or bad. We can’t tolerate that arrogance for anybody to decide what is good or bad for us,”Museveni said.

Dressed in a yellow shirt with a UPDF coat, Museveni added that the social media channels should be used equitably by everyone and thus, the president said had consequently blocking Facebook.

“If you want to take sides against NRM, then you should not operate in Uganda. I am sorry about the inconvenience for those using the channel but government has closed it[Facebook],” he said.

The confirmation by Mr Museveni comes hours after reports indicated that the government had directed telecommunications companies to disable internet connection in the country.

On Tuesday morning, many users complained that they had failed to access Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Signal and Viber. And a lot of them had resorted to virtual private networks(VPNs) to access social media.

AFP news agency said it had seen a letter in which Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) executive director Irene Sewankambo ordered telecommunications companies to “immediately suspend any access and use” of social media and online messaging platforms.

Quoting an industry insider who spoke on condition of anonymity the agency said that the order was first communicated in “nasty and aggressive” phone calls to the telecommunications companies on Tuesday morning.

However, the Uganda Communications Commission spokesperson, Ibrahim Bbosa had denied knowledge of the directive to switch off social media platforms.

“The slow internet could be as a result of too much traffic online because many people around the world are interested in the elections,”Bbosa said early Tuesday.

According to the insider who spoke to AFP, a list of over 100 virtual private networks (VPNs) was Monday distributed to internet service providers by the UCC with orders to block them.

 Not the first time:

For the past few years, the internet in Uganda has become a battleground where the government attempts to silence a growing online population voicing dissent.

NUP’s Kyagulanyi Ssentamu Robert alias Bobi Wine has been seen by many as the leading challenger to president Museveni’s 35 year old rule. Bobi Wine has on various occasions used social media to rally his supporters especially the urban youths|COURTESY PHOTO.

The authorities have tried to deploy different tactics to stifle political dissent and keep the incumbent in power. 

This has been done through blocking media websites, filtering SMS and shutting down social media platforms. And therefore, as January 14 moved closer, many a Ugandans expected similar or more tactics to be used by the government.

2016 election shutdowns:

During the 2016 general elections, Ugandan authorities resorted to shutting down entire social media platforms twice.

The first shutdown took place on February 18, 2016, on the presidential and Parliamentary election day, and it affected social media platforms and mobile money services. This lasted for four days!

On May 11, 2016, social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter and mobile money transfer services were once again blocked. This shutdown lasted for one day and took place a day before President Museveni was sworn in for his fifth term as president. 

During both shutdowns in 2016, the Ugandan government cited “national security’’ as the motivation behind restrictions. The disruptions were ordered by Uganda’s security agencies and the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), which regulates the telecommunications sector, online publications, broadcasting (both radio and television), film industry, postal and courier services.

On April 14, 2011, the UCC instructed ISPs to temporarily block access to Facebook and Twitter for 24 hours to eliminate connecting and sharing information. The order came in the heat of opposition-led “walk to work” protests over rising fuel and food prices. The regulator stated that security agencies requested the block to minimize social media use in order to prevent violence. 

In 2011, the elections were marked with SMS filtration that contained certain words including “Egypt,” “bullet” and “people power.” 

In the lead up to the 2006 elections, the UCC instructed ISPs to block access to the website of Radio Katwe for publishing “‘malicious and false information’ against the ruling National Resistance Movement and its presidential candidate,” according to a 2015 ICT policy briefing by Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). Ugandan authorities blocked access to the radio station and the Daily Monitor website for publishing “independently tallied election results.” Media platforms were quickly reinstated but only after the electoral commission announced official results.

Additional information: Global Voices/Sandra Aceng.

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