On February 18, 2016, when Ugandans went to the polls in presidential and parliamentary elections, they discovered their access to social media and mobile payment services had been cut off only hours after voting began. While preliminary reports from observers indicate voting was conducted peacefully, citizens were faced with a three-day internet shutdown by the government that limited political discussion and temporarily halted financial transactions across the country. Put simply, their right to freedom of expression was grossly violated.
Internet users reported that popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were affected. One of the leading mobile services providers, MTN Uganda, confirmed through a tweet that the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) had instructed the company to block users’ access to social media sites and mobile money transfers. Citing ‘’national security threats’, the UCC confirmed its action and alleged that online platforms were still being used for campaigning on voting day, after all election campaign activities were required to end by 16 February.
Undeterred, tech-savvy Ugandans turned to sharing information about election proceedings using proxies and applications that circumvent such blockages through Virtual Private Networks (VPN). VPNs enabled users to provide minute-to-minute updates of election-related events in the country.
According to a 2014 report by the UCC, Uganda’s internet penetration had grown exponentially over the past several years to an estimated 8.5 million internet users, indicating the social and economic benefits of free access to information. However, the election day shutdown brought with it not only rights violations, but major losses in telecomm money transfers. The Daily Monitor newspaper quoted agents of mobile transfer companies who could not conduct business. ‘’We are turning away people because there is no money service,’’ stated one.
The internet shutdown comes at a time when East Africa is experiencing increased threats to freedom of expression, with internet users being harassed for highlighting issues that show government disfunction in the region.
Our call to action
In an open letter addressed to UN experts and the African Union, Hivos East Africa, together with regional partners, strongly condemned the internet ban in Uganda: ‘’Internet shutdowns — with governments ordering the suspension or throttling of entire networks, often during elections or public protests — must never be allowed to become the new normal.’’ The letter calls upon the international community to pressure the Ugandan government into providing redress to victims of the internet shutdown and upholding its human rights obligations.
Hivos sees freedom of expression as a basic requirement for maintaining an open society where citizens stay informed, express opinions and participate actively in public life. Freedom of expression is in turn bolstered by a robust internet space allowing for citizen participation, democratic processes and dialogues which are the pre-requisites of an open society.
Hivos safeguards citizen’s rights to internet freedom through partnerships geared towards preventing online security threats, lobbying on inclusive government regulation and putting international pressure on regimes that abuse human rights online.
The Social Accountability Programme in Uganda promotes citizen engagement on issues of good governance, transparency, accountability and citizen mobilisation.
The Digital Defenders Partnership also managed by Hivos invests in organisations and individuals working on solutions to digital threats faced by journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders.