It's Facebook vs government in Uganda ahead of a tense General Election on January 14. With just two days to go for the election, the Uganda government has suspended all social media platforms, instant messaging service and internet messaging until further notice.
The decision came after Facebook purged hundreds of accounts on its platforms (including Instagram) associated with the incumbent President Yoweri Museveni's election campaign and advisers. It's not the first time though. The Ugandan government had shut down internet access in the country before the 2016 election and many had anticipated a similar move this time around so that it could favor Museveni.
"Uganda Communications Commission hereby directs you to immediately suspend any access and use, direct or otherwise, of all social media platforms and online messaging applications over your network until further notice," the country's Communications Commission's Executive Director told the internet service providers in a letter.
Suppression of Opposition Voice
For the last 34 years, Museveni has ruled Uganda with an iron fist, cracking down on opposition and media. Since the democratic election process began in 1996, every election has been mired in controversy related to election fraud, voter suppression and arrest of opposition leaders.
This time, he had another weapon, COVID-19 restrictions. Owing to the pandemic, all physical rallies have been restricted with candidates relying on social media and television to reach voters. But Museveni supporters created hundreds of fake profiles to manipulate voters. Some accounts belonged to civil servants. Popular blogger Ashburg Kato and Duncan Abigaba, a Ugandan Information and Communications Technology official also had their accounts suspended. Since then, many government officials have demanded Facebook to be banned in the country.
Facebook, in its defense, said the accounts were removed due to voter manipulation. In a statement to Quartz Africa, the US-based company said that those accounts were involved in coordinated campaigns to manipulate public debate. According to the tech giant, most of the accounts were linked to Government Citizen Interaction Centre at Uganda's Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, according to Facebook.
Facebook statement: "This month, we removed a network of accounts and Pages in Uganda that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior to target public debate ahead of the election. 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. Given the impending election in Uganda, we moved quickly to investigate and take down this network."
VPNs Blocked Too
The Ugandan government has also blocked virtual private networks (VPNs) that were being used to circumvent internet restrictions in the country. As of January 13, users were unable to download any apps from Google's Play Store and Apple's App Store using VPNs. Apart from Facebook and Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube, Signal, Viber and Telegram have also been banned.
VPNs rose to popularity after internet restrictions during the 2016 election. Users subscribed to VPN services to circumvent government censorship and voter suppression. In response, the Ugandan government introduced a controversial social media tax in 2018. That resulted in a decline in the internet and digital payment users, forcing the government to revise it.
Apart from restricting voice on the internet, the Museveni government has deployed thousands of police and military personnel in areas including capital Kampala from where opposition candidates are likely to win. Military and police both were seen harassing and beating opposition supporters. Presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi, said that the homes of his security personnel were raided and his driver was killed. However, police denied both allegations.
That's not it though. The government has also scrambled fighter jets in the country's airspace besides choppers. Amongst the military personnel deployed on the Kampala streets, many were seen singing war songs, draped in leaves.