The Global Network Initiative (GNI), a global, multistakeholder organization focused on freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector, is deeply concerned with the Ugandan government’s continued disruption of digital communication platforms. These disruptions follow a total Internet shutdown that took effect on January 13, 2021, just hours before the general elections.
GNI members, including Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Paradigm Initiative (PIN), underscore the threat to Ugandan voters’ freedom of expression and access to accurate information at this politically sensitive moment. With an increased reliance on digital services during the Covid-19 pandemic, the ongoing restrictions are proving particularly detrimental to information access and daily livelihoods in addition to social, economic, educational, and political engagement. We encourage the government to restore access immediately.
On January 13, 2021, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) ordered Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to enforce a temporary “Suspension of the Operation of Internet Gateways” citing Sections 5(1) and 56 of the Uganda Communications Act of 2013, which requires UCC to monitor, inspect, license, supervise, control, and regulate communications services, among other requirements.
The disruptions to digital communications began on January 09, 2021 with applications such as Google Play and the Apple App Store being made inaccessible. By January 11, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp had been blocked. Efforts to bypass the blockage were also frustrated, as the government ordered the blockage of over 100 Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). The social media blockage was justified by President Museveni as retaliation against Facebook and Twitter for their blockage of pro- ruling party accounts for what they described as coordinated inauthentic behavior aimed at manipulating public debate ahead of the 2021 general elections.
Although the Internet was restored five days later, the government ordered that social media, app stores, YouTube, GitHub, and many VPNs remain blocked indefinitely. On January 21, the State Minister for ICT and National Guidance, Peter Ogwang, issued a warning threatening to arrest all Ugandans currently using social media as they are in violation of the blockage.
Whereas protection of national security and public safety are genuine concerns, Internet shutdowns and continued social media blockage in Uganda are blatant violations of regional and international human rights standards related to freedom of expression and access to information, among others.
The United Nations has recognized Internet access as an enabler of fundamental rights like right to free expression and access to information, among others. GNI and its membership has long pointed out how disrupting Internet access can have far-reaching technical, economic, and human rights impacts, including by “undermining security and public safety,” “restricting access to vital emergency, payment and health services,” and, of particular relevance for the 2021 general elections, undermining electoral transparency.
In light with Principle 37 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression And Access To Information In Africa, states must facilitate the rights to freedom of expression and access to information online and the means necessary to exercise these rights, and must recognize that universal, equitable, affordable and meaningful access to the Internet is necessary for the realization of freedom of expression, access to information and the exercise of other human rights.
The Internet shutdown and social media blockage undermines Uganda’s efforts for digital transformation and innovation, as stated in the country’s Digital Vision. This has been witnessed with several service sectors, including the Ministry of Finance, Central Bank and Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) reporting negative impact on their operations with businesses registering many huge losses as a result of the shutdown. Uganda’s total economic cost of the Internet shutdown for the 5 days can be estimated to be $8.9M (approximately 32.9 billion Uganda Shillings); while the cost of blocking social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp is costing the country an estimated $1.78M (approximately 6.5 billion Uganda Shillings) per day, equivalent to $41.1 M over the last 23 days. Restrictions on app stores can prevent Ugandans from installing application updates, including security updates, thereby rendering millions of devices vulnerable.
We therefore urge the government of Uganda to immediately restore full access to social media and refrain from future network disruptions. We urge the government to respect its citizens’ rights, especially the right to free speech and access to information as guaranteed by the relevant Ugandan laws and the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.
CIPESA (www.cipesa.org) was established in 2004 under the Catalysing Access to Information and Communications Technology in Africa (CATIA) initiative, which was mainly funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID). CIPESA works to enable policy makers in the region to understand ICT policy issues, and for various stakeholders to use ICT to improve governance and livelihoods. We approach our work through four thematic areas: promoting online freedom, ICT for democracy and civic participation, the right to information, and contributing to Internet governance debate at national, regional and global level. Paradigm Initiative (PIN) is a non-profit social enterprise that builds ICT-enabled support systems and advocates for digital rights in order to improve the livelihoods of underserved young Africans, through its offices in Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. PIN’s digital rights advocacy program is focused on the development of public policy for Internet freedom in Africa, through media campaigns, coalition building, capacity building, research, reports, fellowship programs, hosting the annual bi-lingual pan-African Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum, and promotion of Digital Rights and Freedom legislation.
About Paradigm Initiative
Paradigm Initiative (PIN) is a non-profit social enterprise that builds ICT-enabled support systems and advocates for digital rights in order to improve the livelihoods of underserved young Africans, through its offices in Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. PIN’s digital rights advocacy program is focused on the development of public policy for Internet freedom in Africa, through media campaigns, coalition building, capacity building, research, reports, fellowship programs, hosting the annual bi-lingual pan-African Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum, and promotion of Digital Rights and Freedom legislation.
About the Global Network Initiative
The Global Network Initiative (GNI) was launched in 2008. Our mission is to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy rights in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector by setting a global standard for responsible decision making and serving as a multistakeholder voice in the face of government restrictions and demands. GNI members include ICT companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), academics and academic institutions, and investors from around the world. See the full list of GNI members and observers.