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Uganda: Government Attempts to Block Facebook, Twitter as Protests Continue

This post is part of our special coverage Uganda: Walk to Work Protests.

As opposition politicians and others angry over rising fuel and food prices in Uganda continue to stage “walk to work” protests against the current regime, the government is asking Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to shut down access to Facebook and Twitter.

According to the World Bank, a lengthy drought and a spike in fuel prices are wreaking havoc across East Africa. In Uganda, Timothy Hatcher at aaralinuga describes the situation:

Inflation has pretty much doubled over the past month to 11.1 percent, and fuel prices have risen by over 50 percent; prices are approaching $7.00 per gallon. Major impact: prices of some staple foods have tripled since December.

Angela Kintu explains how higher prices are affecting families:

…this protest is about reality, frustration and desperate times. I am buying a litre of Ugandan made and grown cooking oil for sh6,500 [$2.73]. I am paying sh3,600 [$1.51] for a litre of fuel. A tomato has gone up to sh300 [$0.12] at the very least. I don’t know about you, but that is breaking my budget. No one is paying me any more money for my work – in fact, I am chasing debtors left, right and centre. In one short week, Easter and school holidays will be upon me. Three short weeks after that, I must rustle up school fees and requirements.

Forum for Democratic Change leader Kizza Besigye is arrested during a Walk to Work protest on April 18. Photo via “Walk to Work III” by Echwalu Photography.

Forum for Democratic Change leader Kizza Besigye is arrested during a Walk to Work protest on April 18. Photo via “Walk to Work III” by Echwalu Photography.

Opposition foothold

These economic issues have provided a foothold for opposition leaders who have struggled to garner support since losing the February 2011 presidential election to long-time incumbent Yoweri Museveni. Andrew Mwenda explains:

After a long period without any public issue around which to galvanise popular discontent in their favour, the opposition in Uganda has finally found one in the escalating food and transport costs. For the first time, the opposition is rallying the public on a grievance that touches the stomachs and wallets of millions and not one where it is merely fighting for power. Therefore the cat and mouse fight between them and the police has only begun and has potential to open the road to Tunisia and Egypt.

Opposition leaders from multiple parties, including Kizza Besigye (Museveni's former personal physician and Head of the Forum for Democratic Change); Nobert Mao, Head of the Democratic Party; and Olara Otunnu, Head of the Uganda Peoples Congress; have banded together to stage multiple “Walk To Work” protests over the past week and a half.

Besiye and Mao were arrested following the initial protest on April 11, 2011. During a second protest on April 14, Besigye was shot in the hand with a rubber bullet. Nearly 100 protesters were arrested at a third demonstration on April 18; another protest is planned for this Thursday, April 21.

Protests spread

The protests are also beginning to spread from the capital to other cities: 30 demonstrators were arrested in Gulu, in northern Uganda; police were also deployed in Mbale and Sironko, in eastern Uganda, to prevent demonstrations.

As the protests continue, police reactions have become more intense, with tear gas and rubber bullets making more frequent appearances. Anne Mugisha, an official for the Forum for Democratic Change party who was detained for participating in the protests, notes:

I had intended to walk to Church with my two daughters until I witnessed police brutality in Kasangati. On Thursday I was at Kasangati as the Red Cross evacuated pregnant women and children from the tear-gas filled hospital. The scene was alarming and heartbreaking. If I had doubts about the decision to leave my girls at home, they were wiped away by my visit to victims of Thursday’s violence in 6A and 3C at Mulago hospital. The police does not hesitate to throw tear gas canisters into schools and hospitals or to open fire with live ammunition on unsuspecting civilians.

On Friday, blogs and newspapers began reporting that the Ugandan Communications Commission had issued a letter to several of the country's major telecoms, asking them to block access to Facebook and Twitter. A copy of the letter was posted to Twitter by user @kasujja:

A copy of the Uganda Communications Commission letter demanding that ISPs block Facebook and Twitter was posted to Twitter.

The letter reads in part, “You are therefore required to block the use of Facebook and Tweeter [sic] for 24 hours as of now, that is: 14th April 2011 at 3.30 p.m. to eliminate the connection and sharing of information that incides the public.”

Reports vary as to whether the block was enforced. On April 15, Echwalu Edward of Echwalu Photography wrote:

Two giant mobile and Internet Service Providers, Warid Uganda Ltd and Uganda Telecom Ltd (UTL) have both blocked two of the world’s largest social networks- facebook and twitter…. Twitter is slowly coming back but facebook still remains blocked.

On April 15, he posted an update stating that access to both sites was back.

My Song in the Trench reported that the block was increasing access speeds for other websites:

So the Internet, even on my very slow connection, is going so much faster because nobody is surfing Facebook and Twitter right now.

MTN Uganda (@MTNUGANDACARE), one of the country's largest ISPs, announced on Twitter on April 15 that it would not enforce the block:

@MTNUGANDACARE@StoneAtwine Our stand is clear. We are not closing down FB or Twitter. Thanks.

According to multiple media reports, the Uganda Communications Commission also issued a ban on live broadcasts concerning the protests. Blogger Steven Youngblood responds:

Whether it's banning live coverage (proven) or blocking the Internet (rumored), this kind of censorship usually backfires. The Internet blackout in Egypt helped public opinion to coalesce against Mubarak's government. This is 2011, and even in Uganda, international media proliferate. If Ugandan media is muzzled, the population here will simply turn to radio stations from neighboring countries or from international sources like BBC radio or Voice of America. Heavy-handed attempts to control information do not reflect the reality of today's media rich world, but instead reveal desperation and antiquated Soviet-style notions about how to manipulate the public.

This post is part of our special coverage Uganda: Walk to Work Protests.

  • http://www.oafrica.com Tim

    Good aggregation of sources and viewpoints. From what I gather, the UCC was using last week as more of a “test run” than anything else. Today’s statement from the executive director of the Ugandan Communications Commission seems to suggest that although social media sites were not blocked last week, the government will not hesitate to block them moving forward. Not a good sign either way…

    • http://jackfruity.com/ Rebekah Heacock

      Thanks, Tim. I’ve heard similar “test run” theories from friends in Kampala/elsewhere as well. Will keep a close eye on the situation and post updates as things develop.

  • Matthew Scott

    Friends in Kampala are stocking food because shops are emptying. Fuel for vehicles is scarce. Shooting in the streets yesterday when Besigye was arrested again. Armoured vehicles all around Kampala, and lots of people running everywhere as crowds of more than 10 people are being broken up.

  • Pingback: Uganda Walking « zunguzungu

  • Lover of the Pearl of Africa

    My dear friends! Do not spread fires of hatred and destruction throughout Africa!
    Usually the arsonists are engulfed in fire themselves.Uganda is back on track and has
    progressed tremendously after years of civil wars and huge loss of innocent civilian victims.Arn,t you not thirsty enough of innocent blood?Leave Uganda and Africa
    alone- if you want to make democracies make them in your faked democracies where your politicans (Blair,George Dubaya Bush, et al), have been removed from power because of lies and abuse of their powers.They did nothing for their countries but started fires and are guilty of murder of hundreds of thousand of innocent lives.
    Do not twist facts and call leaders who defend their countries-”dictators’.Real dictators are you who are are inviting trouble and hate, and destruction in those countries
    which are developing themselves.That is what hurts you!That is what you do not like to see!You are champions of destruction, but not of peace and love!

  • Pingback: Protest Infatuation and the 4th Wave of Democratization (2) » OWNI.eu, News, Augmented

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