Reporters Without Borders is urging Ugandan authorities to respect freedom of expression and not obstruct online social networks and news media on the eve of new opposition demonstrations. It would be dangerous for the government to make unjustified use of protection of national security as grounds for controlling information, the organization said.
The role of that Facebook and Twitter are playing in providing the public with information about current developments is all the more important given the restrictions that have been placed on journalists trying to cover the demonstrations.
The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) tried to block access to social networks on 14 April, when “Walk to Work” demonstrations were held in several cities in protest against food and gasoline price hikes. In a letter (copy attached) signed by Quinto Ojok (standing in for the executive director), the UCC ordered 10 telecom companies “to block the use of Facebook and Tweeter for 24 hours as of now, that is 14th April 2011 at 3.30 pm.”
The grounds given for the order was “a request from the security agencies that there is need to minimize the use of the media that may escalate violence to the public in respect of the ongoing situation due to the demonstration relating to ‘Walk to Work’.”
UCC executive director Godfrey Mutabazi told Reuters that he was ready to give fresh orders to block Facebook and Twitter locally if they were used “to fan unrest.” The day before, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the arrests of opposition leader Kizza Besigye and other demonstrators, who were accused of inciting violence.
Reached by telephone, Mutabazi told Reporters Without Borders he would cut off access to Facebook and Twitter only if it had to be done to protect the public. He said his statements should be seen as an appeal to Ugandans to be take care not to use social networks to issue calls for hatred or violence. “The freedom to live is more important than the freedom to express oneself,” he added.
As a regulator, the UCC cannot block websites without help from Internet services providers. The 14 April letter was sent to Broadband (U), Foris Telecom Uganda and Infocom, with copies to Orange Uganda, Uganda Telecom, MTN Uganda, Warid Telecom, Airtel Uganda, Africaonline Uganda and ZAfsat Communications. Reporters Without Borders has told some of these companies that it opposes social networks being disconnected in a unilateral and abusive manner.
The blocking that the UCC ordered on 14 April was not implemented by all the companies concerned. Some requested clarification. Some said they got the letter too late. And some simply refused to comply. MTN Uganda, one of the leading ISPs, announced on Twitter on 15 April that it would not carry out the order: “@MTNUGANDACARE: @StoneAtwine Our stand is clear. We are not closing down FB or Twitter. Thanks.”
Some users nonetheless experienced disruptions for several hours. Different information has been circulating about the ISPs involved.
Local NGOs have accused the security forces of using excessive violence to disperse demonstrators – charges rejected by the government.
The Eastern Africa Journalists Association (EAJA) has condemned the restrictions imposed by the government on journalists, who have been denied access to hospitals and certain places linked to the demonstrations. Around 10 journalists have been injured and have had equipment damaged while covering the protests, which began on 11 April. An armed forces spokesman apologized publicly.
Several sources have separately said that a UCC directive has also banned TV and radio stations from providing live coverage of the “Walk to Work” protests.
Reporters Without Borders is very worried about the restrictions that the Ugandan government is imposing on freedom of expression.
“The authorities must not confuse the event itself with coverage of the event,” Reporters Without Borders said. “When media cover demonstrations, they are not taking part in them; they are simply doing their job of reporting the news. The media must not be prevented from working and journalists must not be obstructed.”