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“No matter what they do, the world is watching”: Some Ugandans are back online after internet shutdown during presidential election

On January 13, the eve of the 2021 presidential election in Uganda, the government ordered a complete internet shutdown. Voters headed out to the polls with no methods of online communication or tools to access information about the election process or outcome. 

Authorities have now lifted the four-day total internet blackout, letting people gradually get back online. But this was only after sitting president Yoweri Museveni had already been declared the winner —  claiming (once again) the position of power he has held since 1986. The government is still blocking social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, which remain inaccessible in Uganda without circumvention tools. 

This is not only a blatant attack on Ugandans’ right to free expression and access to information, it is an attack on democracy. Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition calls on the  international community to probe the authorities of Uganda about the shutdown and hold them accountable. No government should be able to flip the killswitch arbitrarily, and especially not during a presidential election.

How the shutdown happened 

Sadly, all of this was anticipated. Just before the shutdown, opposition leader Bobi Wine tweeted  a warning: 

It therefore came as no surprise when, mere hours before polling booths were to open, the government directed the nation’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to shut down access to the internet entirely. Uganda has a history of deliberately interfering with internet access and disconnecting the population during elections, and civil society organizations in Uganda and across the globe were closely monitoring the situation.

In this case, the shutdown began with the government blocking social media platforms, with individual reports trickling in from those who could get access. Then the news broke that the Ugandan Communications Commission (UCC) had ordered Ugandan ISPs to cut access to platforms including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, iOS Appstore, and Google PlayStore, blocking millions of people from freely communicating. In the next phase of this deliberate silencing of the Ugandan people, the UCC blocked Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), tools that enable the circumvention of the blocking. The final stage was a complete blanket shutdown. Data from the Ugandan Internet Exchange Point (UIXP) showed that the country’s internet traffic had dropped as low as 95%. That means the whole country was cut off.

This total internet and social media blackout made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to access information about the elections, whether from inside Uganda or internationally. Coming on the heels of the government’s escalating crackdown on opposition politicians and the media, amid reports of human rights violations, the shutdown demonstrates the Museveni administration’s willingness to make a tense and harmful situation even worse. The blackout also directly and negatively impacted the election process itself: due to lack of internet access, biometric verification reportedly failed at the polling booths. That forced polling agents to resort to manual verification of voter identity, creating long lines and extending wait times for voting.

Why it happened: excuses and lack of pushback

President Museveni has attempted to justify attacking Ugandans’ right to free expression. In a televised state broadcast, he said the government ordered Facebook blocked because the company chose to deactivate accounts that spread false and misleading information about the election —  including those of top Ugandan officials. That’s a poor excuse for cutting millions of people off a major communications platform. A few hours after internet access was restored, a government spokesperson alleged the four-day internet blackout imposed on January 13 was for national security reasons. This is the go-to excuse cited by governments across the world as a pretext to muzzle free speech and deny people access to information during important national events like elections. 

Unfortunately, all the ISPs operating in Uganda chose to comply with the government’s demands, both to block social media and to cut access to the internet entirely, to protect their operating licenses. These companies have a duty to respect the fundamental rights of their users, and there are many ways to push back and challenge a government’s order that violates these rights. That they did only the bare minimum, publishing the government directives, is deeply troubling. Facilitating internet blackouts is a serious matter, and simply sharing the orders does not wash their hands of any wrongdoing. 

What we can do now to hold the perpetrators to account

What happened in Uganda sets a dangerous precedent for other governments to legitimize the use of network disruptions whenever they feel like it. Governments cannot have the power to arbitrarily decide when and how people access the internet and social media platforms. Internet shutdowns are disruptors of human rights. They hugely affect all areas of people’s lives, from health, education, livelihood, and relationships, to financial services. Those who carry out shutdowns must be held accountable.

Join the #KeepItOn coalition

If you’re part of an organization that is advocating for human rights, and you want to help fight internet shutdowns, we encourage you to join the #KeepItOn coalition. Our growing toolset of strategies includes monitoring, reporting, and documenting internet shutdowns and their impact on human rights; using strategic advocacy and litigation to engage with national and international stakeholders; pushing for corporate accountability and disclosure; engaging directly with policy makers; and launching grassroots campaigns

Share your story!

If you are in Uganda, sharing your experience during the shutdown can help us document the impact, raise awareness, and strengthen advocacy against shutdowns worldwide. You can share your story by filling out this form. You can also help by retweeting this request for shutdown stories.