Uganda is gamming social media. “We suffer today, but tomorrow freedom will know”

Ugandan human rights activist Buwembo Habib sends a cartoon of a crying man with his hands tied via WhatsApp. “Uganda” is written on his forehead. Another man sews the man’s lips together and says, “This is for your own good.” The crying man also has a lock through his lips. That’s what the lock says, among other things action on computer abusethe Computer Misuse Act.

The amendment passed by the Ugandan parliament this month goes even further than the already strict “computer law” in the East African country (population 43 million) and now also prohibits the “sending or sharing of false, malicious and unsolicited information”. Activists are worried about this vague wording, which gives the government the right to unceremoniously crack down on critics.

The legislation fits into a trend: the Ugandan government is increasingly trying to restrict online media platforms. Access to Facebook has been blocked since the election last January. Facebook is an important medium for the Ugandan opposition, Habib explains, as traditional media is censored. Opposition leaders like Bobi Wine use the platform to mobilize citizens against the regime. “With VPN connections, activists continued to campaign via Facebook,” he says, “but when the regime found out, they introduced stricter internet laws.”

Also read this interview with Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine: ‘Stop Empowering Dictator Museveni’

In 2011, the first version of the law was adopted for “safety and security in the increasingly digitized environment, including by preventing […] misuse of information systems and securing of electronic transactions”. Over the years, however, the law has been misused to suppress digital rights. The anthropologist and activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi convicted of ‘cyber harassment’ in 2019 for insulting the president on social media.

Uganda is known to outsiders as a flawed democracy, a democracy with flaws, but where you can live relatively freely. That is not correct, says Ugandan expert Erik van der Zanden, who researches non-violent African activism. Oppression is a daily practice for Ugandans.

Habib notes that too. Critics of the government are not allowed access to television and radio stations, especially during elections. “And if we get access at all, we’ll know what to talk about,” he says by phone. “You only had freedom of speech on social media.”

State violence

Uganda is categorized as “not free” in the Freedom House report on freedoms and political rights. The country has been ruled by the same party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), since 1986 and has had the same president ever since. The NRM remains in power through corruption, intimidation of civilians and persecution of opposition leaders, the report said, civil society and independent media also suffer from intimidation and state violence.

Not only Uganda has online restrictions, in the past four years half of African countries have had to deal with internet blocks, according to data from the journalism website Quartz.

Internet blocking has a detrimental effect on the economy of African countries. Businesses that operate online through e-commerce have lost thousands of hours, leading to billions of dollars in losses. In 2019 alone, internet and social media shutdowns are estimated to have cost the continent more than €2 billion. In all cases, the closures occurred during conflicts or elections.

The internet blockade in the Ethiopian region of Tigray, where a violent war has raged for two years, makes it almost impossible for journalists to report on the situation. And so every year new countries are added to the list black out-list. Burkina Faso, Zambia and Niger turned their screens black for the first time last year.

Global trend

Kenyan Jaimee Kokonya works for the international organization for internet accessibility Open Access. “We collected stories from Tigray, Zambia and Uganda,” she says. “Internet restrictions disrupt entire families, even those who do not live in the isolated area. They live in fear and don’t know how their loved ones are doing. This takes a toll on your mental health.”

This tactic is not only used in Africa, but is part of a global trend towards authoritarianism, Kokonya observes. “Governments are increasingly normalizing internet censorship,” she says. “That power outages are implemented with excuses such as fighting exam cheating, but do more harm than good. And even if you believe the excuse, research shows that it is not an effective measure against cheating at all.”

Open Access also looks at signals ahead of a total internet blockade. In 2018, for example, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni introduced a tax on the use of social media. Last year it was withdrawn after much criticism. Despite internet restrictions, activists still find ways to speak out, says Kokonya. But human rights violations are now much less visible.

Twitter ban illegal

She is therefore encouraged to see a collective effort to fight back. For example, the court in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled that Nigeria’s seven-month Twitter ban was illegal and violated Nigerians’ freedom of expression. The court requires the government to take steps to ensure that internet censorship does not take place in the future. “We are happy about that, because it creates case law for the rest of the region,” says Kokonya.

Activist Buwembo Habib laughs at how many times he has been arrested. “I lost count,” he says after a pause. “I’m guessing about fifty times.” It is dangerous, he says. Protesters are searched and kidnapped after a protest. Yet he remains combative. “In 2014, I decided not to be silent about the oppressive regime we live under,” says Habib. “My family has supported me all along. We suffer today, but will know freedom tomorrow.”

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