Responding to the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) shutting down access to social media services in the run up to the 14 January general election, Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, said:
“Amid concerns over threatening rhetoric from high-ranking government officials, use of violence and an escalating crackdown on political opposition, human rights defenders, activists, journalists and civil society actors, it is alarming that the Ugandan authorities have suspended social media networks including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp and restricted people’s right to freedom of expression and access to information.
“The move is clearly intended to silence the few accredited election observers, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, activists, journalists and bloggers who are monitoring the elections. Such shutdowns are a violation of the right to freedom of expression and access to information. Ugandan authorities must immediately lift all blanket restrictions, and end their wave of political repression ahead of the general election.”
Despite banning social media, the Ugandan authorities are circumventing their own restrictions to communicate on these channels. Similarly, telecommunication providers are announcing their compliance with the social media shutdown on the same channels that they have shut.
Social media shutdowns have happened in previous Ugandan elections. In 2011, authorities instructed internet service providers to temporarily block access to Facebook and Twitter for 24 hours and in 2016, authorities ordered telecommunication companies to block social media access on mobile phones.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, in office for more than 34 years, is seeking a sixth term. On 12 January he accused Facebook and unnamed others of interfering with the electoral process. On the same day, UCC Executive Director Irene Sewankambo ordered telecommunications companies to “immediately suspend any access and use” of social media and online messaging platforms. Service providers such as Airtel and MTN Uganda have already written to their subscribers announcing the suspension.
On 9 January, Facebook shut down dozens of pro-government accounts claiming they were “fake and duplicate accounts” linked to the country’s Ministry of Information to make content appear more popular ahead of the elections.
Silencing peaceful dissent and shutting down the internet and social media show that the authorities are failing to uphold their international human rights obligations including those relating to the right to freedom of expression provided under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Uganda is a state party to both.
In 2016, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a resolution in which it expressed its concerns over “the emerging practice of State Parties of interrupting or limiting access to telecommunications services”.