Tuesday April 19 2011

UCC orders 24-hour shutdown of Facebook

By Sheila Naturinda

The Uganda Communications Commission quietly asked Internet service providers to block communication on Facebook and Twitter messaging platforms for 24 hours during the Walk-to-Work campaign on Thursday last week. However, Internet services carried on without a glitch that day save for subscribers on one network who experienced intermittent interruptions.

An April 14 letter signed by Mr Quinto Ojok, who signed in acting capacity for UCC’s Executive Director Godfrey Mutabazi, said social networking fora like Twitter and Facebook, be shut-down for security reasons. “We have received complaints from security that there is need to minimise the use of the media that may escalate violence to the public in respect of the ongoing situation relating to walk-to-work mainly by the opposition in the country,” reads part of the communication. “You are therefore required to block the use of Facebook and Twitter for 24 hours as of now, that is; April 14, at 3:30pm to eliminate the connection and sharing of information that incites the public.”

When contacted yesterday, UCC top boss Mr Mutabazi told Daily Monitor that there was a miscommunication and that the letter wasn’t necessary. He nonetheless didn’t deny his office had sent out the letter.
“The letter was written in my absence. We didn’t authorise [a] ban of any website and Ugandans are free to communicate,” Mr Mutabazi said. He added: “It was a small error but we only request that Ugandans be mindful of their country by using the websites carefully.” However, Mr Ojok, who spoke through the commission’s public relations officer, Mr Fred Otunnu, stood by the letter.

The letter was addressed to 10 companies and also copied to the Minister of Information and Communication Technology and to the Inspector General of Government. The companies are: MTN, Airtel, Orange, Warid, Uganda Telecom, AfricaOnline, Afsat Communications, Broadband (U), Foris Telecom, and Infocom. ICT Minister Aggrey Awori yesterday said he had not seen the letter, having been out of office for some time, but said it was “unusual” to write such a letter.

Aiding uprisings?
The head of legal affairs at MTN, Mr Anthony Katamba, told Daily Monitor he would first consult and check if the letter was received and acted upon, while at Airtel, their public relations officer Joseph Kanyamunyu also promised to check with the Managing director.

Last week, there were also allegations that government had given an oral directive to TV stations to stop live broadcasts, and by yesterday, only one station was broadcasting the protests live. UCC is the national regulator of the communications industry in Uganda. The two social networking platforms, mainly used by the youths and corporate class are reported to have been used in mobilising public support for the uprisings which toppled the governments in Tunisia and Egypt.