President Yoweri Museveni has in a televised address today evening said he ordered for the internet shutdown in response to tech giant, Facebook’s taking down of pro-government accounts.
Over the weekend, Facebook took down several pro-NRM accounts - with the most high profile being that of President Museveni's senior press secretary, Don Wanyama, social media influencers such as Full Figure, Olaxxes, Ashburg Kato, Bajjo among others.
Facebook in a statement Monday, said the accounts were taken down because "They used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people's content, impersonate users, re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular than they were."
"This month, we removed a network of accounts and pages in Uganda that engaged in CIB (coordinated inauthentic behaviour) to target public debate ahead of the election," Facebook's head of communication for sub-Saharan Africa, Kezia Anim-Addo, said in an email to AFP news agency.
Museveni said after taking down the pro-NRM accounts, his government wrote to Facebook demanding for answers but the 'arrogant' tech giant went mute and so he decided to also not make Facebook available for everybody in Uganda.
"There is no way somebody can come to play with our country to decide who is good or bad. We can't tolerate that arrogance for anybody to decide what is good or bad for us...If you want to take sides against NRM, then you should not operate in Uganda. I am sorry about the inconvenience for those using the channel but government has closed it." said Museveni.
Ironically, the president's speech was also being broadcast on his Facebook account - most likely using VPN (virtual private network) which circumvents internet blockades. Social media accounts including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Skype, Viber and some Google and Telegram have been impacted by the blockades.
A section of Ugandans have downloaded VPNs with the most interest and downloads registered in northern Uganda, eastern and western Uganda according to Google Trends. Social media usage and interactivity has significantly reduced since the shutdown that started with the blocking of Android's Play Store on Friday last week.
The internet shutdown also comes just weeks after the government through the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) wrote to Google and YouTube asking them to take down several opposition candidates which they claimed jeopardised the security of the country ahead of this week's general elections on Thursday. Another social media giant, Twitter in a statement, said "earlier this week, in close coordination with our peers, we suspended a number of accounts targeting the election in Uganda."
"Ahead of the Ugandan election, we're hearing reports that Internet service providers are being ordered to block social media and messaging apps. We strongly condemn internet shutdowns – they are hugely harmful, violate basic human rights and the principles of the #."
Although Museveni claimed that he ordered for the internet shutdown due to Facebook's actions, his ministers including Internal Affairs minister Gen Jeje Odongo had already warned weeks before that government will have to find a way of controlling social media which was being used to mobilise opposition supporters to riot over election results.
In the previous 2016 general elections, there was an internet outage before and after the elections with only those with VPNs able to access the internet. It is a common practice by governments in Africa to shutdown the internet ahead of elections with the belief that it prevents mobilisation and sharing of 'fake' election results and propaganda among opposition supporters.
According to NetBlocks which monitors internet freedoms across the world, Internet was disrupted in Tanzania on eve of general elections in October 2020. Similarly, Internet was also disrupted in Guinea ahead of presidential election result announcement on October 23, 2020, this was after a similar social media blockage in March 2020 on the eve of the elections. In Burundi, social media was disrupted on the election day on May 20, 2020, while Guinea blocked social media on the eve of the elections on May 20, 2020.
COST OF INTERNET SHUTDOWNS
According to a report by Top10VPN, there were at least 93 major internet shutdowns in 21 countries in 2020 leading to a $4bn loss.
The shutdowns included total Internet blackouts, Internet throttling (where access to the internet has been reduced to 2G speeds, which permits the use of SMS and voice calls but renders modern websites and apps functionally unusable. This is an internet blackout in all but name.) or social media shutdowns.
In Africa according to the report, at least $237.4m was lost due to the 6,929 hours of shutdowns in 2020 which affected 56.3 million users.
Ethiopia particularly lost $11.3m due to 1,536 hours of shutdown which affected 19.5 million users. Sudan lost $68.7m during the 36 hours of shutdown that affected 13.2 million users. Tanzania’s 432 hours of shutdown affected 14.7 million users and cost government at least $27.5m. Chad lost $23.1m during the 4,608 hours of shutdown which affected 2.2 million users
The United Nations which declared the Internet a human right, in a 2016 resolution condemned "unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law and calls on all States to refrain from and cease such measures”.