human impact of internet shutdowns

Cutting internet access when people need it the most: stories from Uganda

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet is essential to save lives and maintain livelihoods in Uganda. People need access to social media and messaging platforms to connect with each other, get important news and updates, keep up with online education, and save their businesses. Government watchdogs, civil society members, and the press need access to the internet to protect people and let the world know what’s happening. They also need it during elections, to participate in their own democracy.

The Uganda government took all of that away anyway, on January 13, 2021, during a disputed election — exactly as many human rights groups predicted it would. Uganda President Museveni said it was in response to Facebook suspending accounts that were suspicious, but regardless of motive, it silenced millions of people, deprived them of connecting with loved ones, prevented access to education, jobs, and religious practice. It took away their sense of belonging and pathways for maintaining their own health, safety, and democratic participation during a pandemic and lockdowns.

Below, we share the personal stories of Ugandans to shed light on the devastating repercussions of this abuse of power and attack on human rights and public health. These stories are from diverse communities in Uganda who participated in Access Now’s Shutdown Stories project. Some Ugandans lost trust in their government, fearing they would be punished for any attempt to get back online, such as using VPNs. Others suffered both practical and emotional hardship from losing human contact and access to information. People with disabilities had their livelihoods halted. Women and girls lost a channel to ensure equitable access to knowledge. Even though the internet censorship and social media blackout has ended, the impact the disruptions had on their lives and rights lingers on.

Uganda's approximately 12.4% persons living with disabilities are already struggling with the prohibitively high prices of digital devices and assistive technology, and internet shutdowns are an insult to that already painful injury. With internet shutdowns, PWDs are locked out of the digital space as much as they are locked out of the built environment. Just when we thought the internet was opening up opportunities that we've for so long been denied in the built environment, internet shutdowns remind us that we are far from being fully included!

The government shuts the internet down to prevent people from organising via [social media] to exercise their right to vote and to prevent any information around police brutality and anything that will compromise them and [prove] they violate Human Rights.

Me and my startup, Digital Woman Uganda (, couldn't hold our online sessions with the village teams we usually use to get to the communities we serve through our online visual radio TRadio ( This affected lots of our digital rights advocacy work and impacted on our ROI via the radio.

I was unable to meet work deadlines with international project partners [and thus lost a chance to grow my business]. I was unable to access my mobile money account as [telcos] shut down financial services too…  I have lost my respect [for] the government's intimidation methods: the heavily armed military patrolling the streets with guns, like years  of exposure to military intimidation  can keep a public docile forever.  The uniform and weapons being used to oppress and murder the public in the name of the regime has made me lose what little respect  I had for security forces.

I was waiting for the result [of] a job interview when the government cut the internet. [It] really took [an emotional] toll on me, I was [anxious], restless, and barely sleeping thinking the organisation could change their mind after the election. Politically... I really got so [angry that] I even refused to vote, because I knew even  if I voted, the government would even remain the same... Financially I had to stay 2 days [without] liquid cash because the ATM and mobile money was also [switched] off. My family almost slept without food  on 14/01/2020 the election day. I [did not receive the] money [I was supposed to get via PayPal] from the U.S. … I am very passionate about international news and development… during the internet shutdown I was totally on a blackout because...I 100% rely on getting news  from my phone apps and computer.

The internet shutdown affected my home schooling, with children at home for over a year. In addition, it affected my work because as a researcher, I rely  on the internet a lot to access information. So for the days when the internet was off, I could not do my work efficiently and effectively. With the internet off, I couldn't exercise my freedom of expression on political issues, and speak up against injustices. This I do a lot online and social media.

I'm doing a dissertation to graduate… [Due to the internet shut down,] I'm [under] pressure to cover up for the lost [time to meet] the deadline for submission. [The shutdown also] blocked communication between me  and my friends, relatives mostly outside the country. I couldn't get [emotional support via social media] as Instagram, TikTok, Likee, WhatsApp, [and] Facebook were blocked. I had applied for many job opportunities online, but with the shutdown, I [couldn’t access my emails and] missed out on some opportunities.

[The shutdown] caused losses to my [clients and] business. This has left me no choice but [to] hawk my products from place to place, looking for customers. [My] mental health [was] disrupted and [deteriorated] because I am now [overthinking] all the time. I have always used the various online platforms to connect with friends and loved ones. [But] right now, It feels like I am all alone and that right has been taken away from me... I ran out of money at one point and I got stuck in town, I had to walk all the way from Kampala City Center to my home area because services were switched off without prior knowledge. [I] could have prepared and planned better.

Due to the [COVID] effects,  we mainly work remotely which implies that we have to be mainly online to earn a salary. I have been taking online classes in  a school that is not in Uganda. [The shutdown] means that I was left behind as they were not even aware of the challenges we were having in Uganda. It's cheaper  to make calls on WhatsApp  and Telegram both locally and internationally. [Without the internet, we have to face] an increase in expenditure if [we need] to socialize.

The internet shutdown affected my deadlines for submitting certain academic progress reports that I had scheduled to have completed within the election holiday break. Accessing the different journals for information came to a stand still and all the time that I lost have contributed to my failure to submit my application documents for a scholarship on time. An opportunity that may not come again... Also, when it comes to emotional well being, I experienced [a] high level of social distancing virtually… with the social distancing, internet base communications was the most reliable way for us to reach out and be able to see one another through video calls. All that was limited due to the internet shutdown.

I founded a female-led organization that supports women with trainings on digital safety. The shutdown made me miss good opportunities, I had application deadlines and couldn't submit in time because of the shutdown.

[Shutting down the internet] is one way [to] press censorship and deny people their rights to communication… My OTT was deactivated, [and my VPN was disconnected,] so I could not [contact my boyfriend] anymore… It was really a difficult experience. Even now I must use VPN to access [the] internet and am facing hardships. Some of the links do not open because of using VPN. [I] am even [worried about] using VPN because the government has continued warning those using VPN that they will be sued.

Made my work be at standstill, exams were [postponed], weekly webinars were put at a standstill, communication was cut off, it was a total mess.

We were in election season so I missed  out on [a lot] of information. I [couldn't] campaign for my candidate [if] I had prepared and expected. I also operate a small online shop and so lost out on [a lot] of clients.

[The] internet shutdown affected my project proposal application  for our organisation, Youth Forum for Social Justice. [On] top of that, it devastated my life online since [the] internet is part and parcel of my life as a human rights defender and social justice change agent.

Join the campaign to stop internet shutdowns

In 2021, many other countries that have a history of shutdowns are also scheduled for elections, such as the Republic of Congo, Chad, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Iran. The global #KeepItOn coalition is watching the elections and calling on governments to stop violating the rights of people globally. You can join forces with us by taking the following steps:

Share this blog post on social media using the hashtag #KeepItOn and #InternetShutdown to raise awareness about the devastating impact of internet shutdowns on people’s lives.

Share our Shutdown Stories form with your network in Uganda to help us gather more testimonies for our advocacy work, which can help serve as evidence of harm in court and international forums.

#KeepItOn is a global campaign that unites more than 240 organizations around the world fighting to end internet shutdowns through grassroots advocacy, direct policy-maker engagement, technical support, and legal intervention.