Uganda Govt orders social media shutdown ahead of tense poll

January 13, 2021
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Uganda’s communications regulator on Tuesday ordered internet service providers to shut down social media and messaging applications, just two days before elections.

In a letter, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) executive director, Ms Irene Sewankambo ordered telecommunications companies to “immediately suspend any access and use” of social media and online messaging platforms.

Several social media users in Uganda have reported inability to access Facebook and Twitter, among other social media platforms as the country braces for a tense election that has been marred with violence.

Other social media sites blocked include WhatsApp, Signal and Viber.
By Tuesday morning, several users said they could only access social media sites through a virtual private network (VPN).

A source said a list of over 100 VPNs was distributed to internet service providers by the UCC with orders to block them.

UCC spokesman Ibrahim Bbosa told this reporter: “I am not aware of a directive to switch off internet or social media platforms.”

“There has been slow connectivity on the platforms which can be partly due to heavy traffic as a result of the forthcoming elections,” he said.

The move comes days after UCC asked all major telecom companies to block access to the iOS AppStore, Google PlayStore and YouTube.

The Minister of Defense and Veteran affairs Adolf Mwesigye and his Internal Affairs Counterpart Gen Jeje Odongo last week told journalists in Kampala that government was working on how best they can manage social media which they claimed has been misused in this election.

“We are now having a challenge of citizen journalism. Social media propaganda is certainly not in the best interest of this country’s security. We are looking for a way of dealing with it,” Mr Mwesigye said on January 8.

Restriction to Facebook access comes a day after the internet giant on Monday confirmed that it had shut a slew of accounts belonging to Ugandan government officials accused of seeking to manipulate public debate ahead of elections Thursday.

Uganda is holding presidential and parliamentary elections after a tense and bloody campaign, with President Museveni, 76, facing a stiff challenge from the popstar-turned-politician Bobi Wine, 38.

“This month, we removed a network of accounts and pages in Uganda that engaged in CIB (Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour) to target public debate ahead of the election,” Facebook’s head of communication for sub-Saharan Africa, Kezia Anim-Addo, said.

“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.”

Anim-Addo said the network was linked to the ministry of information and communications technology.

“Given the impending election in Uganda, we moved quickly to investigate and take down this network.”

Social media giants have come under increasing scrutiny over the content they allow to spread on their networks.

This is the second election government is blocking access to Facebook.

In 2016, the government blocked access to Facebook and Twitter before former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi who was running against Mr Museveni then popularized VPN.

Source: AFP