Uganda shutdown of social media proves futile as users bypass ISPs

Sunday February 21 2016

By GAAKI KIGAMBO

Attempts by the Ugandan government to shut down popular social media sites Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, especially on mobile devices, appear to have come to naught as users resorted to virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass the blockade to exchange information on voting, tallying and announcement of results.

VPNs are virtual versions of secure networks designed to provide a secure, encrypted tunnel in which to transmit data over parallel systems aimed to block it.

The aim of the social media shutdown, according to the Uganda Communication Commission, which instructed Internet service providers to block social media sites, was to safeguard the country’s “security.”

But political observers say it was aimed at limiting media scrutiny of the election and signalled the return of a clampdown on civil liberties such as freedom of association, speech and assembly and further gagging of the media, which was common in the run-up to earlier elections.

“Switching off social media is seen as a deliberate move orchestrated by the government to stifle voices of dissent, hide a flawed electoral process and deny Ugandans the right to know what is actually happening,” said Lucy Anyango Ekadu, the president of the Uganda Journalists Union, in a statement.

The social media blockade came hot on the heels of a warning by UCC that it would not hesitate to shut down news platforms that do not comply with “minimum broadcasting standards.”

Systematic clampdown

“It is systematic clampdown,” said Peter Gwayaka Magelah, a programme manager at Chapter Four Uganda, a human-rights organisation that released a report on Monday detailing 72 incidents on violations of freedom of assembly and expression ahead of the poll.

“It is part of the continued violation of freedom of expression and gagging of the media that was common in the run-up to elections. It began with attempts to block critical debate on radio, then NTV was blocked from President Yoweri Museveni’s campaign and more recently, the electoral commission’s blockade of phones and cameras at polling stations. It most likely is a move to block sharing of evidence of rigging,” added Mr Gwayaka.