Internet Shutdown during Uganda elections - Twitter condemns internet shutdown as harmful to basic human rights

Uganda elections poster with voting via tick or thumbprint
elections poster with voting via tick or using thumbprint

  • Internet shutdown activated in Uganda during presidential elections leaving users unable to access social media services Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Skype
  • International observers and journalists are denied access including EU and US officials
  • Twitter condemns Internet shutdown in Uganda and encourages an open internet.

On the 14th January 2021, Uganda goes to the polls to elect parliamentary and presidential leaders that will lead the east African nation for the next five years. 

It is the culmination of an election campaign process that has been marred by police violence that resulted in over 50 people getting murdered in November 2020, and a cyberattack by anonymous on Uganda police website in retaliation. 

The election is hotly contested between the incumbent Yoweri Museveni who has been in power since 1986 and the 38-year old pop-star and member of parliament Kyagulanyi Sentamu (Bobi Wine) who is drawing massive crowds. With Uganda having over 78 percent of its population below 30 years, it is clear that Bobi Wine is more appealing to the youth than the 76-year incumbent.

Opaque election keeping election observers out

Election observers from the European Union and the United States are denied access by the government, and thus will not be able to observe the voting process. 

In a tweet by Bobi Wine commenting on this anomaly: "First, they refused to invite the EU Mission to observe this election. Now, U.S. observers have also been denied accreditation! The world knows why Gen. Museveni is doing this. So unpopular and yet very desperate to declare himself a winner at all costs. Uganda, turn up & vote!" 

Here is a tweet from the US ambassador to Uganda announcing the decision not to participate in observing the elections: "Sadly, I announce Flag of United States decision not to observe #Uganda’s elections due to @UgandaEC’s decision to deny more than 75% of our accreditation requests. A robust contingent of observers, including local entities, promotes transparency & accountability."

Bobi wine (kyagulanyi sentamu) tweet uganda elections 2021
Bobi Wine comments on US ambassador statement tweet

In addition to the absence of international election observers, the government has also deported journalists that have been reporting violent crackdowns on the protestors during the election campaigns, for example, the CBC News crew below.

                                              journalists deported during elections campaigns

After 35 years in power, Museveni's initiatives have failed to create relevant opportunities that address the needs of the young people leaving the country with one of the highest unemployment rates in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In an effort to find opportunities, youth have embraced the Internet and presence on social media channels like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Skype, and Telegram servers which are now blocked by Internet service providers (ISPs) in Uganda.  According to Netblocks, a total Internet shutdown has on the evening of 13 January 2021 on the eve of the elections leaving businesses and individuals unable to communicate or transact business online.

Internet Shutdown order to Service providers

Among the Internet services implementing Internet, shutdown orders is Mtn and Airtel that have posted statements on their Facebook profiles. the Internet shutdown termed as service restriction order is a directive from the Uganda communications commission to "immediately suspend access and use [...] of all social media platforms and online messaging applications [...] until further notice." 

No reason is given from either UCC or ISPs for suspending the access when it will be restored and the impact such an Internet shutdown has on individuals and businesses that depend on the Internet in Uganda.

ISP MTN Uganda posted on Facebook:
Monday, 12 January 2021 - Kampala, Uganda: 
MTN Uganda Internet Shutdown elections 2021

MTN Uganda informs its esteemed customers and other stakeholders that National Telecommunication Operators in the country, have received a directive from Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) to immediately suspend access and use, direct or otherwise of all social media platforms and online messaging applications over the network until further notice. 
MTN Uganda has, in compliance with its National Telecommunications Operator License and in accordance with MTN’s group-wide Digital Human Rights due diligence framework implemented the directive. 
MTN Uganda will continue engaging with the relevant stakeholders to limit the scope and duration of the service disruption.

ISP Airtel Uganda posted on Facebook: 
"Airtel Uganda wishes to inform its esteemed customers that following a directive from Uganda Communications Commission, access and use, direct or otherwise of all social media platforms and online messaging applications has been suspended until further notice."

Airtel Uganda Internet Shutdown Uganda elections 2021

Condemning Internet Shutdown as infringing human rights

In a series of tweets from Twitter Public Policy on the issue of the ISPs blocking social media during Uganda elections, the social media giant "strongly condemn internet shutdowns – they are hugely harmful, violate basic human rights and the principles of the #OpenInternet."

"Ahead of the Ugandan election, we're hearing reports that Internet service providers are being ordered to block social media and messaging apps.
We strongly condemn internet shutdowns – they are hugely harmful, violate basic human rights and the principles of the #OpenInternet."

In a further tweet the same day, Twitter confirmed that it had suspended social media accounts targeting elections in Uganda and whether the suspected accounts were used by state-backed actors. "Earlier this week, in close coordination with our peers, we suspended a number of accounts targeting the election in Uganda. If we can attribute any of this activity to state-backed actors, we will disclose to our archive of information operations:"

Of course, the action of Twitter to suspend social media accounts may have angered the government actors that were spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt during the Uganda elections. Twitter issued a tweet encouraging conversation on its platform as an important activity during elections and tagging the post as Uganda decides 2021. "Access to information and freedom of expression, including the public conversation on Twitter, is never more important than during democratic processes, particularly elections. #UgandaDecides2021 #KeepItOn"

twitter tweets condemning Uganda internet shutdown
screenshot of tweets condemning Internet shutdown in Uganda

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