Writer: Simon Peter Asiimwe
Democracy should be a core value of every country across the world. But democracy must be nurtured and supported through promoting human rights, development, peace and security.
The Internet is ‘a key means’ by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as stated in Art. 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
However, the Ugandan government, through its communications regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) ordered internet and telecom service providers to cut internet access just hours before the hotly contested national elections voting started. The shutdown came after Facebook closed accounts belonging to some government officials and NRM social media ‘influencers.’
The abrupt shutdown affected Ugandans in many ways. It affected their way of life. Businesses and the electoral monitoring and reporting processes were hugely affected. The media that was supposed to broadcast the voting process was caught flat footed and for more than three days did not have reliable footage of both the voting and tallying from across the country.
The Human Rights Commission supported the government’s shutdown of internet access ahead of the polls. Speaking at the release of their preliminary report about the polls, Dr. Katebalirwa Amooti, the chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission said whereas the public has a right to internet, the same is not absolute and can be suspended by government in certain circumstances.
Dr. Katebarirwe noted that owing to the deadly November 18 and 18 riots after the arrest of National Unity Platform presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi, the government has a duty to protect the country and therefore could not let chaos start under its watch.
Much as I am partly in agreement with Katebalirwe, it is also very important for the government to fulfill its responsibility of promoting good governance, adequately supporting the monitoring of elections, and to accord space for the civil society to strengthen democratic institutions and accountability.
All through the campaign period, there were threatening statements made by some candidates’ supporters and social media was filled with a lot of fake news that might have turned into a danger to people and their properties. However, the shutdown should punish innocent Ugandans that use the internet to communicate and do business. The shutdown hit earnings and left citizens unable to pay bills, and send money to family.
Internet freedom monitor Netblocks estimates that the five-day shutdown cost the Ugandan economy around $9 billion, mainly affecting mobile money transactions which many Ugandans rely on for payments, e-commerce, airline bookings and app-based taxi services. Businesses in the formal and informal sector, education, healthcare, the media, government agencies, civil society groups, and many others, that increasingly rely on the internet and digital platforms to keep their activities going were hugely affected.
The security of Uganda is very important and should always be given priority but the state actions should not be inconsiderate due to the modern ways of conducting business through e-commerce.