Friday February 19 2016

UCC shutdown of social media backfires




“No weapons fashioned against #tweetizens shall prosper” one tweep [Twitter user] said.
The tweet was to mean that even after the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) had succeeded with the shutdown of social media platforms Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter on polling day, all hopes had not been crashed, for example, the hashtag#UgandaDecides remained top among the trending topics on Twitter.

Several Internet users using mobile broadband on devices such as phones and Ipads managed to bypass the blockade by using the virtual private network (VPN) to continue accessing social media sites.
UCC officials, the director of corporate affairs Fred Otunu told this newspaper the “temporary” shutdown of social media and the widely used Mobile Money network was for security concerns while executive director Godfrey Mutabazi told local TV stations the shutdown was at the behest of the Electoral Commission.

However, sources within UCC intimated the Thursday morning shutdown came after the ruling NRM party made an alarm over a spate of negative messages, audio and video, against their candidate President Museveni.

The tampering with social media comes on the heels of a recent crackdown on radios across the country that hosted Opposition presidential candidates.

Attempts to get comment from the NRM party’s spokespersons were futile by press time. But President Museveni yesterday after casting his ballot at Kaaro polling station in Rushere, Kiruhura District, told journalists that social media is a “pathway of lies” and justified the shutdown for national security reasons.
“That must be steps taken for security to stop so many [social media users from] getting in trouble,” Mr Museveni said.

UCC, the communications regulator in the country, eventually effected the shutdown around 9am through the mobile telecommunications service providers MTN, Airtel, Smile and Africel. Only Vodafone’s connectivity remained functional but intermittent. With VPN access, which enables virtual rerouting of internet protocols, Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with minute by minute updates of what was happening round the country as Ugandans cast their ballots.

The shutdown was reminiscent of 2011, at the height of the walk-to-work protests, when UCC asked telecommunication companies to shutdown social media for about 24 hours.

Several social platforms are only accessible by smartphones. There is no official statistics of smartphone users in the country but UCC as of last February put mobile phone users in the country at 19.5 million people. Uganda is rated as Not Free in Freedom in the World 2016 index, and partly Free in the Freedom on the Net 2015, according to Freedom House, an independent watchdog.

After the public fury, MTN in the afternoon sent out a Twitter message saying: “The UCC has directed MTN to disable all social media & Mobile Money services due to a threat to Public Order & Safety.” Other telecommunications could not be reached immediately for a comment.

Rights body, Amnesty International in a statement described the shutdown of social media, especially on polling day as a “blatant violation of Ugandans’ fundamental rights to freedom of expression and to seek and receive information.” In a statement, Amnesty’s deputy regional director for East Africa,Sarah Jackson, said ““Without clearly defined security concerns, this closure is nothing but an exercise in censorship as Ugandans elect their leaders.