Examine a photo or watch a video of Bobi Wine—Uganda’s top challenger to a president who has been in power for 35 years—and one will likely spot multiple phones livestreaming. For more than a year now, almost every move Wine makes has been broadcast on the internet.
At night, when traveling around the country, livestreamers sleep close to his room, ready to switch on their cameras the moment there is any disturbance. On the campaign trail during the day, they capture him and his adoring crowds from multiple angles.
These livestreamers are part of Wine-affiliated Ghetto Media, a series of social media pages with such a large following that the Ugandan government has written to Google to try and get them shut down, accusing its administrators of inciting violence.
The way Uganda’s opposition is using social media, and livestreaming specifically, is a new type of revolution. “The biggest safety that we get is having cameras around us,” Wine told journalists last week, right before he was dragged from his vehicle and tear-gassed during a Zoom call. He says things could always be worse if no one is watching. “The polls are in seven days now. My most important mission is to be alive.”
On Thursday’s election, Wine, 38, faces Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a 76-year-old who has extended term limits and abolished age limits to hold onto power. Museveni has been president since 1986, before most Ugandans were born. He is also disconnected from the vast majority of citizens in other ways: While Museveni’s family profits, unemployment is sky-high and millions of people struggle to survive in what is one of the world’s poorest countries.
By contrast, Wine grew up in a slum and calls himself the “Ghetto President.” He is an acclaimed musician, releasing songs with titles like "Freedom" and "Rise Up," and is now the star of Ghetto Media.
The livestreamers don’t take their responsibility to Wine lightly: “I’m ready to die for journalism,” said Ghetto Media’s Ashraf Kasirye, who regularly livestreamed from on top of Wine’s own car, during an interview on a rare day off in December. “During tear gas moments I always ensure that the camera keeps rolling. I’m ready to go through all that pain to show the world what’s going on in Uganda, that human rights are being violated.”
These concerns about safety are significant. Since working with Ghetto Media, Kasirye had become used to regular tear gas and pepper spray, and had been hit with a water cannon and saw others shot at with live ammunition or rubber bullets. Over the last few months, Wine has been arrested and dozens of his supporters and other civilians killed by security forces. And two weeks ago, on December 27, Kasirye was shot in the head and badly injured by Ugandan police.
Heading into election week, Ghetto Media’s livestreamers are expecting to be joined by more young Ugandans wielding smartphones. Wine is encouraging his supporters to go to the polling stations as early as 5am on election day and to stay there all day, filming what is happening around them. He has said he wants them to gather evidence of any misbehaviour and to make sure their votes are counted. “It is you, this is your opportunity, let us get to work, let us do this,” he said in a livestreamed address at his home in north Kampala on Friday. “Nobody’s going to watch the election for you.”
It is not clear if they will be able to share that footage, due to an expected social media shutdown. On Sunday, after Wine tweeted saying his supporters should download VPNs, the websites of the most popular VPNs were blocked. In the coming week, the internet could even be shut down completely.
Kasirye was on the way back from a church ceremony he attended with Wine when he was injured. It is not clear what hit him; witnesses say it was likely a rubber bullet; police say a tear gas canister. But the moment was captured on his own livestream.
Kasirye can be heard saying “Oh God, look at this … Look what they are doing to us,” while standing behind Wine. Police are around their vehicle. Wine has one hand raised, waving at supporters, then there are a few thumps and the screen goes black. In the video, people began shouting Kasirye’s name. There is crying, police sirens and more thumps as “Ashraf” is called over and over again. Photographs taken on the scene show him unconscious, blood streaming down his face. Part of his skull, above his left eye, appears to be shattered. Two other Ugandan journalists were also injured during the attack.
Citing a need to protect Kasirye, Wine rode in the ambulance with him. As they drove, one of Wine’s bodyguards, Francis Senteza Kalibala, died when he was, according to Bobi Wine, run over by a military truck which had been blocking their route to hospital. Another livestream from the aftermath showed Wine crying as he spoke about what had happened.
This attack on Kasirye, and censorship of his work, reflects the crackdown on social media and livestreaming that has been occurring in Uganda. Wine has 1.4 million followers on Facebook, and nearly one million followers on Twitter, where he regularly uses the hashtag #WeAreRemovingADictator. Supporters say it was his 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. For many, in a country where the daily gross domestic product (GDP) per capita per day is around 7,000 Ugandan shillings ($1.90), the cost was prohibitive.
Dima Samaro, a policy analyst for Access Now, an organisation that protects digital freedoms, said livestreaming is “still something new.” While it has gained increasing popularity among opposition movements over the last two years, crackdowns against it have already begun. In Jordan, for example, access to Facebook Live was restricted or blocked during protests last year. In Uganda, Ghetto Media say their Facebook pages have been repeatedly hacked.
The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the attack on Kasirye, as did Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. The following day, Ugandan journalists walked out of a military press conference in protest of Kasirye’s treatment. Since then, an advisory released by the Committee to Protect Journalists has also confirmed the grave dangers faced by journalists during Uganda’s election season. Their statement included warnings about police using stun grenades, live ammunition, arresting and detaining journalists, potentially ramming people with vehicles, and more.
Kasirye, a 28-year-old from Kampala, had already been a journalist for four years when he began to cover Wine’s campaigns in 2017. “Bobi Wine was our inspiration as young people who grew up in slums, in poverty,” he told VICE World News. Kasirye and his friends were motivated by Wine’s success, which convinced them that they, too, could succeed.
Two years later, Kasirye was let go from New Vision Media Group, where he was a regular freelancer, after he was accused of bias. While Kasirye calls Wine his "friend" and will admit to being a supporter, he believes that most Ugandan outlets skew the opposite direction. “In Uganda, media space is only made free when people are siding with the government,” he said. Around the time he was fired, Kasirye added, his multiple phones were stolen in what he now thinks was deliberate targeting by the Ugandan government’s intelligence services. He has been with Wine ever since.
By December 2020, Kasirye was streaming for an average of 12 hours a day on behalf of Wine and Ghetto Media. Using phones donated from Ugandans abroad, Kasirye would carry two power banks and multiple SIM cards. Locals would send phone credit so he could buy data, as he went through around 21 gigabytes a day. Wine also gave Ghetto Media phones, cameras, and other equipment. Kasirye saw his role as protecting Wine: “We make sure the cameras are rolling for his safety.”
As the Ugandan election inched closer, pressure on journalists has only increased. In December, the government media council announced that all journalists in the country, both Ugandans and foreigners, would have to reapply for media accreditation within seven days, or risk facing criminal charges. The new application forms asked each person to give examples of their reporting over the past year, as well as information about the topics and geographical locations they intended to cover, and even details about their families. A government source told VICE World News that Uganda’s intelligence services were examining the information that was submitted.
Uganda’s inspector general of police, Martin Ochola, recently said that security forces have been beating journalists “for their own safety.” “We’ve been beating journalists to restrain them from going where there’s danger, he said. “I won’t apologize for police actions.”
Last week, Wine submitted a filing to the International Criminal Court, calling for Museveni and senior figures in Ugandan police, military and intelligence to be charged with crimes against humanity. The filing, which was drafted by a US-based lawyer, mentioned Kasirye’s shooting. A photo was included, and showed Kasirye in the backseat of a car, his face covered in blood.
There are also photos and stills from videos, taken in mid-November, when at least 54 civilians were killed by security forces during protests. In a press conference later, Wine said Museveni had committed “more atrocities” than infamous Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, who has been indicted by the ICC.
Last Tuesday, nine days after he was hit, Kasirye was still at a private hospital in Kampala. Lying curled up in a bed, his wife kneeled on the floor beside him in the surgical ward. A large scar was still visible on the left side of his head, and his right eye was swollen completely shut. Much of his face seemed unnaturally puffed up.
Kasirye spent three days in the intensive care unit when he first arrived, going through extensive surgery. He is still trying to speak, but hadn’t succeeded when visited by VICE World News. Instead, he manages to write down some words and gesture at people. A few minutes after we entered the room, he opened one eye and waved slowly.
Visiting with VICE World News was Jonan Atusingwize, another Ghetto Media livestreamer, who doubles as a journalist in a Ugandan radio station. He had taken a day’s break from campaigning and wanted to see his friend. Sitting on a couch outside Kasirye’s room, Atusingwize told me they had even been frightened to bring him to a government hospital and that was why they got private healthcare. “We can’t trust them,” he said. As we spoke, masked doctors walked in and out of the surgical ward and gospel music played faintly in the background.
Kasirye’s treatment so far has cost 28 million Ugandan shillings, or $7,575, though the bill for Kasirye’s surgery has yet to come. Wine has appealed to Uganda’s diaspora to contribute towards those costs.
Despite the danger, Atusingwize continues to go on the campaign trail with Wine. He said he felt like crying the first time he livestreamed after Kasirye’s injury. “We go outside and work but we are not the same,” he said. “We expect to lose lives but we trust God. We know we are doing the right thing.”
“Me covering [Wine] is not is not a crime. That's what the regime are trying to do, they want to make us criminals,” he continued. “Some of us lost our jobs. [Kasirye] lost his job, a well-paying job [in journalism]. He's here gambling his life now, paying the price for his country. But we are strong.”