Internet Shutdown and Freedom of Expression

Bryan Kaye Senfuma March 2, 2021

Among all the benefits that have come with using the internet, it has accelerated the enjoyment of the freedom of expression and right to access to information. Therefore any shutdown of the internet affects the enjoyment of these freedoms.

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Having gone through what many described as a scientific campaign for the 2021 general elections, on the eve of going to the polls; 13th January 2021 the Uganda Communications Commission ordered telecoms and internet service providers to indefinitely suspend internet gateways. Since the country had gone through a campaign that saw the increased use of online platforms, an internet shutdown meant that people were robbed of a platform to get information and at the same time a platform to express themselves.

Listen to our Podcast #5: Impacts of the Internet Shutdown feat. Jimmy Haguma and Juliet Nanfuka here.

How did the Internet Shutdown happen?

Ms. Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo, the acting executive director of the Uganda Communications Communication in her letter dated 13th January 2021, to telecommunications companies, ordered the internet service providers to temporarily suspend the operation of the internet. “This suspension should take effect at 7:00pm of 13 January 2021 and continue until otherwise directed.” The total internet shutdown was preceded by blocking access to the App Store and Play Store which meant that one could not download or update any app on their mobile devices. This was followed by blocking access to social media by saying that the shutdown was done following Facebook’s decision to delete several accounts linked to the ruling NRM party. The president said that “If that social channel is going to operate in Uganda, it should be equitably used by everybody who has to use it. If you want to take sides against NRM, then you cannot operate in Uganda. We cannot tolerate this arrogance of anybody coming to decide for us who is good and who is bad”. Facebook deleted the said accounts on grounds of manipulating public debate ahead of the elections.

Implications of the Internet Shutdown

With a total shutdown of the internet, online platforms that have become avenues where people express themselves could not be accessed. The internet has become an enabler for exercising the freedom of speech and expression therefore a total shutdown meant curtailing of these freedoms. With the internet shutdown, the only source of information remained was the traditional media i.e. radios and televisions. As much there was traditional media, the media was also under a dark time since they heavily rely on the use of the internet to transmit their stories from the field.

Most of the journalists that were involved in covering the election described the shutdown as a dark time for the media and their listenership. On one of the weekly talk shows; the Fourth Estate on NTV Uganda, Mr. Edward Muhumuza, a correspondent of NTV Uganda, said that as journalists they could not ask the Electoral Commission officials proper questions since the only information they had was what the Electoral Commission was relaying to them. He recounted that it seemed like an isolation from the whole world since one was only privy to the information at the National tally Centre. An environment described by Mr. Edward clearly points to an environment that was devoid of transparency hence affecting the right to access to information during an election.

Our Call to the Government

Following the arbitrary shutdown of the internet, we remind the government of its obligations under international law and under its national laws. The internet has now become an enabler for enjoyment of human rights especially the freedom of speech and expression, therefore the internet is now interdependent to the enjoyment of human rights.

The Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression stated that the internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression as guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Report further asserts that Article 19 was drafted with foresight to accommodate future technological developments through which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of speech and expression.

The Report puts an obligation on States to put in place effective policies that aim to make the internet widely available, affordable and accessible to all since it has become a catalyst upon which the freedom of speech and expression can be exercised.

Uganda’s constitution also codifies the freedom of speech and expression under the constitution. As much as there might be limitations as to the enjoyment of these freedoms, courts of law in Uganda have held that it is the fundamental human right that is fundamental but not the limitation.

From the above propositions of the Report, the Internet should be seen as a medium through which one can enjoy freedom of expression and speech meaning that any restrictions that are not supported by law constitute a violation of such freedoms. It’s therefore our call to the government to avoid these arbitrary shutdowns of the internet as they have far reaching impacts not only the enjoyment of human rights but also on government services and businesses that depend on the functionality of the internet.