The Media Institute of Southern Africa’s (MISA) flagship publication, So This Is Democracy?: State of Media Freedom in southern Africa was an insightful read this week. The report notes that African governments are increasingly exploiting the “national security” discourse to introduce regressive interventions and that somehow we are in a new area of “contestation between the state and advocates for freedom of expression and access to information and media freedom.”
More and more governments are moving to regulate the internet, but worse are those governments like Uganda who are seeing blanket internet interruption and social media shutdowns a card to be used every few months.
Half way into 2016, Ugandans have so far dealt two social media shutdowns in the country where the President Yoweri Museveni won a controversial re-election to extend his rule beyond 30 years. Today the ability to bypass a cyber wall has become an essential skill to have as a Ugandan.
The first shutdown came on the eve of the election, on February 18, 2016 Ugandans woke up with their phones unable to connect to Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. The government had also requested Telecom companies to disrupt the use of mobile money services. It took hours for the Uganda Communications Commission to speak about the shutdown. President Museveni has explained that the shutdown as a necessary security measure “because some people use those pathways (social media) for telling lies” This is a country where the Supreme Court ruled ‘publishing false news’ as incompatible with the right to freedom of expression but who cares in this fight for legitimacy.
The second shutdown came around his swearing in ceremony on May 12 following days of jets circling around the capital city Kampala a move seen as a sign of intimidation. It is no secret, Kampala didn’t vote for the president- together with many other parts of the country. Military jets flying so low were being used by Museveni regime to send a message to Ugandans who oppose his rule.
A day before the social media shut down opposition leader Dr.Kizza Besigye was sworn in at secret function and appeared briefly in the centre of Kampala after successfully beating the security that deployed at his house. Within minutes of his arrival, hundreds of Kampalans had congregated to see the man cordially named the ‘People’s President’. Videos of the Ugandan military men beating unarmed civilians in the city centre made rounds online. One of my relatives who works downtown narrated to me a horrific scene of the military several times beating up a pregnant woman with sticks and how she was stuck in a shop filled with teargas that she almost choked.This was a sad reminder of how a regime that has fallen out of favour with the population is bound to behave. In 2016 Museveni was elected with most Uganda in a social media blackout and the swearing in wasn’t any different. So social media shutdowns in Uganda cannot be separated from the general dwindling civic space and freedoms of ordinary people.
Back in early 2000s when I was at university one of the most interesting radio weekend programmes were’ ebimeza’- from ekimeza (roundtable). Live talk shows where Ugandans would gather to discuss issues and radios would relay the conversation- often heated and occasionally people went bare knuckles- they brought Ugandans of various political backgrounds and one to get fair idea of what people feel about certain action or policy.
The ekimeza further aroused political consciousness of mainly educated youth –who either joined the discussions or began to view affairs of their country in a two-faced manner –and make informed decisions –accordingly. It showed relevancy to vernacular-speaking radios and to Ugandans in the countryside; together invoked a new radio programs –the ekimezabrand. These included simbawo akati (Radio Simba), mambo baado (CBS), among others.” – Jacob Waiswa, The Role of Civil Society Organizations in Good Governance: A Case of Ekimeza in Uganda
After the 2009 Buganda riots the ban on embimeza was in place and public dialogue became limited. As Museveni sought to extend his rule the space for expression and assembly continued to narrow. By 2011, two years after banning ebimeza, Ugandans still in limbo wondering if these forums would be allowed a come back watched TV scenes from the Arab Spring beamed to the world. Many commentators pondered on possibility of the Arab Spring spreading to the rest of the continent. Even though the Spring didn’t move southwards, the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya left a mark on the continent. For many Ugandans, it was unbelievable that built up pressure could force one dictator to flee the country and another one to step down. The events in Libya took a different course once NATO and US thought it wise to interfere but as NATO bombed Libya, the government in Uganda moved to ban certain words in SMS at the height on 2011 presidential elections. Ugandans were a little more familiar with Muammar Gaddafi’s thanks to his ties with Museveni (an old rusting monument still up on Kampala-Masaka road). Government moved to order Telecom companies to intercept text messages with words or phrases including “Egypt”, “bullet,” “Tunisia,” “Ben Ali,” “Mubarak,” “dictator” and “people power”as government feared for Egypt-inspired uprising. The police and military took over the fews squares in the city.
The 2011 Uganda was still largely using SMS to communicate but the Arab Spring brought out the reality of how internet enabled people to rally to send a message to their leaders. Few weeks after the re-election of President Museveni, government ordered telecoms to shut down social media at the peak of walk to work protests although the directive wasn’t acted upon.
Post Arab Spring saw rising use of social media and now most Ugandans get their news before watching a TV and traditional media are working hard to compete in this newly reshaped environment. We have also seen the increase in live coverage of events by Ugandan TVs feeding the population images in real time that makes conversations to happen in real time, in a way requiring a lot more work from government than just old school propaganda.
In 2016 WhatsApp and Facebook are the leading platforms used to communicate in Uganda. Frequently Ugandans on Twitter use hashtags to express themselves on various issues. For a government that is out of tune with its population’s trends and needs, a social media kill switch seems most attractive action but such moves even with manufactured reasons like national security don’t take away the image and the reality that Uganda is sliding towards a dictatorship.
Days before the May 12 social media shutdown, I saw many tweets warning of the shutdown. The only difference this time was that Telecom companies gave a notice to customers that they had been directed by the government to shut us out. This being the second shutdown and knowing President Museveni’s support in this youthful nation is not about to recover, what new game will internet service providers bring forward? Accepting government orders issued whenever the regime feels uneasy about what is being shared online is not sustainable. The Uganda Police says there was national security justification for social media shutdown but “cannot reveal details because they are not yet declassified.”
For sure we have our VPNs ready for the next shutdown but the actions of both government and telecoms that violate freedom of expression and right to information shouldn’t go unchallenged. While the social media has been freed until the next shut down, many political prisoners are piling in our cells. In chat with Henry Maina Director of Article 19 Eastern Africa he tells me it is important that Ugandans seek a constitutional court judgement spelling out the contours to be navigated as law enforcers seek to keep public order but have an obligation to respect, protect and facilitate freedom of expression.
“Telecom companies must be taken to court too for violating contracts of consumers. We must challenge businesses who collude with government to further rights violations.”
Chapter Four Uganda organized an event to discuss the social media shut down this week on May 23 where Fred Otunnu from Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) said “social media has disrupted traditional communications and government is yet to find a way of regulating.”
It takes a government pre-occupied with regime survival equating it to security, control of speech and thought to issue such statements. Social Media hasn’t just arrived and it is not too late for the government to engage online with those dissenting but given the state of affairs offline, I have no hope this will happen any time soon. The issue is not that the government doesn’t know how to regulate social media use within the law The fact is social media and freedom on the net cannot easily prevail in a country where a 30 year old regime is increasingly unpopular. While offline the military and police occupy squares, mete out violence on an unarmed Ugandans in downtown Kampala and demand Ugandans seek permission to assemble, when it comes to social media it seems the only attractive crude method that government still opts for is shut down. Opinions online are a reflection of what Ugandans feel and deal with daily and there are Ugandans from all walks of life online. Social media shutdowns are well in line with other actions already carried out by the state where citizens are not heard but dealt with- so the contestation continues.
Featured photo via @VyprVPN