Ugandan authorities on Monday allowed restoration of some internet services in the country, five days after a shutdown that occurred as last week’s election approached.
While connectivity has been restored to 90 percent of ordinary levels following the announcement of the election result—a landslide victory for President Yoweri Museveni, who has held office since 1986—Ugandans can only access social media via virtual private networks (VPNs). Through VPNs, users can bypass internet censorship by having their IP address appear as if based overseas—international servers process the users’ internet traffic. However, VPNs are not a panacea, given that governments can block all overseas IP addresses including those coming through a VPN. The Ugandan government is not known to have blocked international IP addresses but its partial internet censorship persists.
“As internet connectivity partly returns to [Uganda], metrics show a similar pattern of extensive social media and messaging restrictions as prior to election day with some new additions. Hence, where service is back it remains less than usable,” NetBlocks, an internet monitoring group, stated on Twitter, where it has implored Ugandan authorities to restore full internet access.
The BBC reported that Museveni is believed by the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) to have shut off internet access “to prevent [the NUP] from sharing evidence of fraud.” The NUP’s belief is contradicted by Museveni who commented that last week’s election might have been the country’s “most cheating-free” election to date.
Maintaining the barred social media access for Ugandans without VPNs raises concerns about freedom of information in the country. Social media platforms have become hubs for information-sharing across domestic and international spheres—a function of mammoth importance when making an informed decision about one’s participation in the democratic election process. Although such platforms house some misinformation and disinformation which muddies the accuracy of the information pool, they are useful tools to inform oneself about political party policies, the public views of and missions spearheaded by party candidates, as well as information about the electoral process.
The censorship has been widely condemned. NetBlocks stated that the internet shutdown left “citizens in an information vacuum,” and non-governmental organization UN Watch tweeted, “Congratulations to Uganda President Yoweri Museveni on winning re-election after murdering, imprisoning & silencing opponents, shutting down the internet, and committing widespread voter fraud.”
Opposition candidate and leader of the NUP, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (also known as Bobi Wine), who has rejected the country’s election result, is entitled to challenge it within 15 days following its announcement at the Supreme Court.