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Ugandan government restores social media sites, except Facebook

A man uses a computer to read news at a cyber cafe after the Uganda Communication Commission restored the internet in Kampala, Uganda. (AFP)

Ugandan authorities restored access to the internet Wednesday, a month after blocking it ahead of the January 14 elections. The government said the disruption was needed for security, while critics say it was intended to cut off communication among opponents of President Yoweri Museveni.

"Internet and social media services have been fully restored," Ugandan Minister for Information and Communications Technology Peter Ogwang tweeted Wednesday, adding, "We apologize for the inconveniences caused, but it was for the security of our country."

Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said the shutdown was a method of war against elements that were a threat to the credibility of the elections.

Since those threats have been greatly neutralized, he said, the government has restored access to social media websites, with the exception of Facebook.

"We have released elements of social media — Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp — because we think to a less extent, those are not as lethal as Facebook," Opondo said. "So, we shall examine going forward, their posture on these other social media platforms that have been released. And that will inform how soon Facebook is restored."

Before the January 14 elections, Museveni ordered the blocking of Facebook following reports that the company had shut down 220 accounts linked to the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology.

Facebook said the accounts were fakes or duplicates being used to make posts by Museveni and his son, Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, appear more popular than they were.

Some posts from the accounts also targeted the opposition National Unity Platform Party and its presidential candidate, Bobi Wine.

National Unity Platform Party spokesperson Joel Senyonyi says Facebook was right to shut down the accounts.

"Government continues to have a grip on social media because they want to control free speech," he said. "Because they know that Ugandans pretty much have social media as the avenue for their free expression. And that's why Facebook did carry out its investigations, because there was a lot of propaganda churned out by those government-run social media accounts."

A message from service providers to consumers after the Ugandan government restored access to social media websites. (Screenshot)

Michael Niyitegeka, an information technology expert, says the shutdown of Facebook is hurting many Ugandans' livelihoods because they rely on the social media site for marketing.

"Because they don't have the resources to go to radio, they don't have the resources to go on TV. So, their business largely depends on the Facebook market," he said.

Dorothy Mukasa, chief executive officer of Unwanted Witness, a digital rights organization, is calling for lawmakers to establish rules on internet access.

"What we should be doing as Ugandans is to continue to put the government to account," she said. "You know, why did they shut down the internet? And also, ask institutions like parliament or judiciary to put in place guidelines. Because this is bound to happen over and over. Can we have guidelines in place or even a law that really stipulates, when should the internet be disrupted?"

In the meantime, Ugandans continue to use virtual private networks to access Facebook without paying a social media tax introduced by the government in July 2018.

This article was published by Voice of America.


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