Uganda has shut off the internet in the lead up to its election. On January 13, Uganda will choose between sitting President Yoweri Museveni and opposition leader Bobi Wine. Museveni is a 76-year-old man who has ruled Uganda for 35 years, whereas Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, is an internet savvy challenger and famous musician who has livestreamed every moment of his campaign. Now, Wine’s biggest outlet to his supporters is cut off.
Supporters say it was Wine’s popularity that led the Ugandan government to introduce a daily social media tax, in mid-2018, which meant citizens had to pay 200 Ugandan shillings a day (Or .05 cents) to access Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and a range of other sites.
“In exercise of its functions under 5(1) and 56 of the Uganda Communications Act of 2013, Uganda Communications Commission hereby directs you to implement a temporary suspension of the operation of all your Internet Gateways and associated access points,” Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo, the executive director of the Uganda Communications Commission, said in an official letter to Simbanet Limited, a Uganda based ISP. “This suspension should take effect at 7pm this day of 13th January 20201 and continue until otherwise directed.”
According to NetBlocks, a group that monitors internet shutdowns, internet traffic fell to 33% of its ordinary levels after 7pm on January 12 in Uganda. Overnight, more ISPs complied with the order and traffic fell to 18% of ordinary levels.
“As we closer [sic] to elections, watch out for those abusing the Internet by sharing false information. This includes so called [fire] or breaking news, 'leaked' letters & videos created to deliberately misinform or mislead recipients of these,” Sewankambo said in a January 11 tweet. “Don't be haste to believe. Stop & verify.”
Museveni is, by most accounts, a dictator with a long list of proven and alleged human rights abuses. Last week, Wine filed charges against Museveni in the International Criminal Court, accusing the Ugandan president of human rights violations ahead of the election. While announcing the filing, which included photos and videos of civilians killed by Museveni-backed security forces during protests, Wine was tear-gassed and pulled from his vehicle by police officers during an online press conference.
The move to block the internet comes almost ten years after Egypt blocked Twitter and Facebook during protests in 2011. India, the world’s largest democracy, repeatedly shuts down its internet.
“What’s going on in Uganda is becoming the standard play from the authoritarian regime manual of operation,” Dr. Alexi Drew, a Research Associate at King’s College London who studies disinformation and the internet, told Motherboard in an email. “If you expect significant public criticism, unrest, or organization against your interests then blocking means of communication on a mass scale must be the first port of call. We’ve seen it in Egypt, India, and now we’re simultaneously seeing it in Ethiopia in what is billed as a policing action and cutting off public political communication during an election in Uganda.”
“While cries of censorship over the fate of Donald Trump’s Twitter account and Parler fill the airwaves and digital forums of Europe and the United States, entire populations are being effectively deplatformed in these two states,” she said.