Uganda blocks social media and messaging apps, isolating election

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the blocking of social media platforms and messaging apps in Uganda since yesterday, two days before the presidential election. It constitutes a serious obstacle to the freedom to inform and caps the intense crackdown on media and journalists that has marked the entire electoral process, RSF says.

Uganda’s Internet service providers were ordered to block access to Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Signal and Viber. The directive was issued by the communications regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission, in a letter seen by several news agencies.

The campaign for this election – in which pop singer Bobi Wine has emerged as the leading threat to a sixth term for Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president since 1986 – has seen a fierce crackdown on dissent that has not spared journalists.

The order to block social media came one day after Facebook said it was closing a dozen accounts held by government officials and supporters, including the president’s press spokesman, because they were being used for fraudulent activity designed to manipulate the public debate.

Whether a deliberate act of censorship or a puerile reprisal, this decision is going to further worsen conditions for an open, pluralist and transparent public debate that is essential to the election’s credibility,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “Disconnecting social media is also going to contribute to the election’s isolation and constitutes another stage in the crackdown on the freedom to inform that has been carried out in recent weeks.

Several incidents marked the final months of 2020. A shot fired by a policeman at very close range hit the journalist Moses Bwayo in the face as he was filming Bobi Wine supporters on 5 November. Two days before that, Paddy Ankunda, a military intelligence officer, referred to foreign journalists as CIA agents in tweets that were later deleted. Three Canadian journalists with CBC News who had come to cover the campaign were deported on 29 November.

In all, RSF has logged some 40 press freedom violations in Uganda since the start of November, including eight arbitrary arrests of journalists and 21 acts of aggression against them.

Uganda has fallen 23 places in RSF's World Press Freedom Index since the last presidential election in 2016 and is now ranked 125th out of 180 countries.

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Updated on 13.01.2021