Uganda: when accessing the Internet is going political

Uganda, an East African country bordering Congo and Kenya, is going through dark days for human rights. On Thursday 14 January, after a long-running campaign between Yoweri Museveni, vying for a 6th term, and Bobi Wine, MP and youth favourite singer, the country voted. A tense electoral process for the political issues it poses, and which was carried out in complete darkness and media silence. Few accredited journalists were allowed to cover the event in Uganda. The United States, where Bobi Wine sent his children for security reasons, was denied most of his accreditation. Only about 15 were accepted, prompting the embassy to cancel plans to observe the elections. Poor media coverage, coupled with the breakdown of the internet and social networks on the eve of the vote, puts Uganda’s election under a dangerous cloak of isolation.

After 35 years in office and a dictatorship ruled with an iron fist, the current president Yoweri Museveni is not determined to let power slip from his grasp. Confronted with the excessive popularity of his opponent, the government quickly put in place a control of the population through its means of communication. It all began when the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) ordered Internet service providers to shut down access to social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, and to restrict virtual private networks (VPNs) as well.

The measures, already restrictive, were not enough to the taste of the dictator with a long list of human rights violations, and were quickly completed on the eve of the elections. In order to ensure an electoral process that was indiscriminate and deprived of Wine’s supporters’ organisation, Uganda subsequently decided to cut off all internet access. “The UCC has ordered Internet Service Providers to shut down the Internet until further notice. This measure has digitally disconnected millions of Ugandans from each other and from the rest of the world,” Felicia Anthonio, activist and leader of the #KeepItOn coalition for Access Now, promoting international digital rights, declared in an email.

These methods on the part of the government in power are reminiscent of many past elections on the African continent, where digital manipulation has raged. Between 2016 and 2019, twenty-two African countries interrupted or slowed down Internet access, mostly during elections. A simpler fact illustrates this: it was in Africa that the British company Cambridge Analytica tested its data collection and network manipulation techniques that would later make it sadly famous. A trend towards the digital manipulation of public opinion that is modelled on individual political wills, in addition to the existence of some 20 dictatorships on the continent. Moreover, this use of digital technology as a tool for manipulating the masses can be explained by the recent migration of the African political debate towards social platforms and networks.

Elections, as the central political process, are often the arena for the exercise of these tactics, and are coupled with increases in violence and the fragmentation of discourse. These closures and manipulations of the Internet have devastating effects on human rights.

Not only do they violate the right to access to information and freedom of expression, but they also help state and non-state actors to cover up human rights violations that occur during this “shutdown”. Violations that were commonplace during the term of office of the current president, who for instance, four years ago, passed an anti-homosexual bill, toughening up the repression. The presidential campaign had only increased an already stagnant and systemic violence: in mid-November, 54 people had been killed by police in riots sparked by the arrest of Bobi Wine. Controlling the internet and networks not only means controlling the spread of these abuses and violations, but also breathing down the fire that fuels them.

“What is happening in Uganda is becoming the standard piece of the authoritarian regime’s instruction manual,” Dr Alexi Drew told Vice. As a researcher studying disinformation and the Internet at King’s College, she continued: “If you are expecting significant public criticism, unrest or organisation against your interests, blocking the means of communication on a large scale should be the first port of call. We’ve seen it in Egypt, in India, and now we’re seeing it simultaneously in Ethiopia in what is presented as a police action, and cutting off public political communication in an election in Uganda”.

Ten years after Egypt’s internet cuts in 2011 causing a 90% drop in internet traffic, “digital terror” in Uganda has now also taken its place in the run up to the presidential elections. And it started long before the polls began.

In September, police were able to access the WhatsApp account of Bobi Wine, President Yoweri Museveni’s opponent, without his prior knowledge. The intrusion, which gave the government access to Wine’s personal information, was intended to silence his mobilization and that of his many supporters. According to the same supporters, the same objective was behind the introduction of the daily tax on social networks in 2018: the collapse of Bobi Wine’s public appeal. With this tax, Ugandans were required to pay 200 Ugandan shillings (about 50 cents) a day to access Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp. Digital manipulation in Uganda therefore has deep roots, as well as a huge stake: power, and the responsibility for the country’s affairs.

“Disrupting the internet and social media platforms during this critical period, in a country where people already have to pay a high tax on social media to access these platforms, is an infringement of the right to freedom of expression and access to information,” defends Felicia Anthonio, Access Now activist. Nevertheless, the population remained mobilised and went to the polls. Without Internet access, the officials considered that the ballot went off without major clashes. Police spokesman Fred Enanga and the chairman of the electoral commission, Simon Byabakama, said the election was “generally calm throughout the country”. These official statements need to be tempered precisely as they may have been prompted by the Internet restrictions. “Since the complete blackout was ordered, it has become extremely difficult, if not impossible, to access information about what is happening in Uganda and the rest of the world,” Access Now points out.

Candidate Bobi Wine, a figure of hope and symbol of the movement against the incumbent dictator that has flourished under the hashtags #WeAreRemovingADictator and #UgandaDecides2021, remains optimistic. “Even with all the irregularities of the ballot, which we will share with the rest of the world in the coming days when the Internet is restored, we have gained a comfortable lead,” he said at a press conference on Friday 15 January. On Twitter, he said that “despite the high level of fraud and violence throughout the country, the picture still looks good”, before thanking the population for having mobilised so widely by going to the polls.

How will the results turn out? Tracking by the #KeepIton coalition over the years has shown that election results in countries where the Internet is regularly disrupted by the incumbent government are contested by opposition politicians and a majority of citizens. “Thus, Internet blackouts undermine the credibility of elections. Given the intensity of the electoral race in Uganda, it will not be surprising if Ugandans contest the results” explained Access Now. Currently, the official results show the incumbent president leading.

The results of the election will be known “by Saturday at 4 p.m.”, 48 hours after the close of polls, according to the election commission. As for the fate of the internet, ISPs and telecommunications providers operating in Uganda are still complying with orders to suspend their service. In the country, digital manipulation has once again become a political and electoral weapon. It remains to be seen whether the will of the people will be the right shield.

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