Big Story: Security Council Ordered UCC to Shutdown Internet on Eve of Presidential Election

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The National Security Council ordered the suspension of internet access services a day before the Presidential and Parliamentary elections citing national security reasons.

This according to the affidavit of Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo, the Executive Director Uganda Communications Commission -UCC in support of the Attorney General’s answer to the presidential election petition.

Sewamkambo, is among the 76 witnesses whose affidavits have been filed in the Supreme Court as evidence from the Attorney General.

The petitioner, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu wants the election nullified. He alleges that the election was not conducted in accordance with provisions of the 1995 Uganda Constitution, the Electoral Commission Act, the East African Community Treaty, African Charter on Democracy and Governance and other relevant laws.

For instance, he says that the Electoral Commission-EC and Attorney General breached sections 23 and 24 of the Presidential Elections Act that provide for  equal treatment, freedom of expression and access to information of candidates and rights of candidates to access state media.

Kyagulanyi says the EC and Attorney General failed to ensure freedom and fairness during the election when the UCC “switched off or caused the switching off of the internet and mobile money services thereby curtailing the free flow of information within the electorate and resource facilitation to agents of the petitioner”.

In her response, Sewankambo says that the National Security Council-NSC directed UCC to suspend internet, bulk messaging and mobile money services temporarily.

She says that on 13th January 2021,  Gen. Elly Tumwine, the Minister of Security wrote a letter to UCC regarding the council’s decision. The NCS is made up of cabinet ministers and top security officials in the army and police.

Tumwine noted that “in the interest of national security, it has been deemed necessary by the National Security Council, to have the following modes of communication suspended temporarily; internet services, bulk SMS messaging services and mobile money if necessary.”

The letter of 46 words resulted in UCC directing all telecom companies to shutdown the internet by 7pm on the eve of the election.

Sewankambo supports the move, saying that it was based on reports of misuse of social media platforms and incidents of violations including publication and broadcasting of sectarian content and character assassination of political actors  on particularly Facebook, Youtube and Twitter.  

Also, she claims that there were “reports of planned cyber attacks on especially government networks and other systems in the country”. She adds that UCC had on its own monitored the use of social media platforms and noted a lot of incidents of violation of Ugandan laws. Due to the continued misuse of social media, it prompted UCC “to engage telecommunication providers and social media companies to institute measures to avoid the misuse of their respective networks to compromise national security.”

However, “efforts to engage social media companies such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter proved futile as they did not show commitment and capacity to monitor their respective platform users, ” says Sewankambo. As a result, she says disconnection of the internet was  “intended to facilitate a free and fair election”.

Last December, UCC asked the above companies to block Ghetto TV and 13 NUP leaning online platforms for publishing content likely to mislead and incite violence against people based on their tribe and political affiliations.

A few days to the election, Facebook however  blocked several accounts and pages of government and NRM supporters because they were  misleading people on who they are or what they do in order to target public debate ahead of the election.

Meanwhile, Sewankambo has  downplayed the effects of the internet shutdown saying that it did not leave Ugandans in a communication blackout since postal, courier and other forms of radio communications remained available. “There were 320 operational radio stations across the country, over 45 television stations on air, mobile and fixed telephone connection remained on and people freely called and enjoyed short message services (SMS) and multimedia Messaging Services (MMS) through these communication platforms”.

However, the shutdown affected businesses such as apps, online and financial sector players.

Reuters news agency says that Netblocks, an internet freedom monitor calculated that the five day internet shutdown cost the economy close to 9 billion US Dollars, about shillings 3.3 trillion. The financial sector alone was losing about shillings 66 billion a day.

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