Joint Letter on Internet Shutdown in Uganda

By Access Now |

Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Mr. David Kaye, Mr. Joseph Cannataci, Mr. Maina Kiai, Mr. Michel Forst, Ms. Faith Pansy Tlakula, and Ms. Reine Alapini-Gansou

cc: African Union
African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) Secretariat
Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa Secretariat
Domestic & International Election Observer Missions to the Republic of Uganda
East African Community Secretariat
International Conference on the Great Lakes Region Secretariat
New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Secretariat
Uganda Communications Commission
Uganda Electoral Commission
Uganda Ministry of Information and Communications Technology

23 February 2016

Re: Internet shutdown in Uganda and elections

Your Excellencies,

We are writing to urgently request your immediate action to condemn the internet shutdown in Uganda, and to prevent any systematic or targeted attacks on democracy and freedom of expression in other African nations during forthcoming elections in 2016. [1]

On February 18, Ugandan internet users detected an internet outage affecting Twitter, Facebook, and other communications platforms. [2] According to the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), blocking was carried out on orders of the Electoral Commission, for security reasons. [3] The shutdown coincided with voting for the presidential election, and remained in place until the afternoon of Sunday, February 21. During this period, two presidential candidates were detained under house arrest. [4] The telco MTN Uganda confirmed the UCC directed it to block “Social Media and Mobile Money services due to a threat to Public Order & Safety.” [5] The blocking order also affected the telcos Airtel, Smile, Vodafone, and Africel. President Museveni admitted to journalists on February 18 that he had ordered the block because “steps must be taken for security to stop so many (social media users from) getting in trouble; it is temporary because some people use those pathways for telling lies.” [6]

Research shows that internet shutdowns and state violence go hand in hand. [7] Shutdowns disrupt the free flow of information and create a cover of darkness that allows state repression to occur without scrutiny. Worryingly, Uganda has joined an alarming global trend of government-mandated shutdowns during elections, a practice that many African Union member governments have recently adopted, including:  Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo. [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13], [14]

Internet shutdowns — with governments ordering the suspension or throttling of entire networks, often during elections or public protests — must never be allowed to become the new normal. Justified for public safety purposes, shutdowns instead cut off access to vital information, e-financing, and emergency services, plunging whole societies into fear and destabilizing the internet’s power to support small business livelihoods and drive economic development.

Uganda’s shutdown occurred as more than 25 African Union member countries are preparing to conduct presidential, local, general or parliamentary elections. [15]

A growing body of jurisprudence declares shutdowns to violate international law. In 2015, various experts from the United Nations (UN) Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), issued an historic statement declaring that internet “kill switches” can never be justified under international human rights law, even in times of conflict. [16] General Comment 34 of the UN Human Rights Committee, the official interpreter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, emphasizes that restrictions on speech online must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose. Shutdowns disproportionately impact all users, and unnecessarily restrict access to information and emergency services communications during crucial moments.

The internet has enabled significant advances in health, education, and creativity, and it is now essential to fully realize human rights including participation in elections and access to information.

We humbly request that you use the vital positions of your good offices to:

  • call upon the Ugandan government to provide redress to victims of the internet shutdown, and pledge not to issue similar orders in the future;
  • call on African states to uphold their human rights obligations, and not to take disproportionate responses like issuing shutdown orders, especially during sensitive moments like elections;
  • investigate shutdowns, in their various forms, in order to produce public reports that examine this alarming trend and its impact on human rights, and make recommendations to governments and companies on how to prevent future disruptions;
  • encourage telecommunications and internet services providers to respect human rights and resist unlawful orders to violate user rights, including through public disclosures and transparency reports;
  • encourage the African Commission on People’s and Human Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the UN General Assembly to resolve that Internet Shutdowns violate freedom of expression per se and without legal justification.

We are happy to assist you in any of these matters.

Sincerely,

Access Now
African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS)
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
Article 19 East Africa
Chapter Four Uganda
CIPESA
CIVICUS
Committee to Protect Journalists
DefendDefenders (The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
Global Partners Digital
Hivos East Africa
ifreedom Uganda
Index on Censorship
Integrating Livelihoods thru Communication Information Technology (ILICIT Africa)
International Commission of Jurists Kenya
ISOC Uganda
KICTANet (Kenya ICT Action Network)
Media Rights Agenda
Paradigm Initiative Nigeria
The African Media Initiative (AMI)
Unwanted Witness
Web We Want Foundation
Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET)
Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum

Endnotes

[1] Uganda election: Facebook and Whatsapp blocked’ (BBC, 18 February 2016) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-35601220> accessed 18 February 2016.

[2] Omar Mohammed, ‘Twitter and Facebook are blocked in Uganda as the country goes to the polls’ (Quartz Africa, 18 February 2016) <http://qz.com/619188/ugandan-citizens-say-twitter-and-facebook-have-been-blocked-as-the-election-gets-underway/> accessed 18 February 2016.

[3] Uganda blocks social media for ‘security reasons’, polls delayed over late voting material delivery (The Star, 18 February 2016) <http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2016/02/18/uganda-blocks-social-media-for-security-reasons-polls-delayed-over_c1297431> accessed 18 February 2016.

[4]  Brian Duggan, “Uganda shuts down social media; candidates arrested on election day” (CNN, 18 February 2016) <http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/18/world/uganda-election-social-media-shutdown/> accessed 22 February 2016.

[5] MTN Uganda <https://twitter.com/mtnug/status/700286134262353920> accessed 22 February 2016.

[6] Tabu Batugira, “Yoweri Museveni explains social media, mobile money shutdown” (Daily Nation, February 18, 2016) <http://www.nation.co.ke/news/Yoweri-Museveni-explains-social-media-mobile-money-shutdown/-/1056/3083032/-/8h5ykhz/-/index.html> accessed 22 February 2016.

[7] Sarah Myers West, ‘Research Shows Internet Shutdowns and State Violence Go Hand in Hand in Syria’ (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 1 July 2015)

<https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2015/06/research-shows-internet-shutdowns-and-state-violence-go-hand-hand-syria> accessed 18 February 2016.

[8] ‘Access urges UN and African Union experts to take action on Burundi internet shutdown’ (Access Now 29 April 2015) <https://www.accessnow.org/access-urges-un-and-african-union-experts-to-take-action-on-burundi-interne/> accessed 18 February 2016.

[9] Deji Olukotun, ‘Government may have ordered internet shutdown in Congo-Brazzaville’ (Access Now 20 October 2015) <https://www.accessnow.org/government-may-have-ordered-internet-shutdown-in-congo-brazzaville/> accessed 18 February 2016.

[10]  Deji Olukotun and Peter Micek, ‘Five years later: the internet shutdown that rocked Egypt’ (Access Now 21 January 2016) <https://www.accessnow.org/five-years-later-the-internet-shutdown-that-rocked-egypt/> accessed 18 February 2016.

[11] Peter Micek, ‘Update: Mass internet shutdown in Sudan follows days of protest’ (Access Now, 15 October 2013) <https://www.accessnow.org/mass-internet-shutdown-in-sudan-follows-days-of-protest/> accessed 18 February 2016.

[12] Peter Micek, ‘Access submits evidence to International Criminal Court on net shutdown in Central African Republic’(Access Now 17 February 2015) <https://www.accessnow.org/evidence-international-criminal-court-net-shutdown-in-central-african-repub/> accessed 18 February 2016.

[13] ‘Niger resorts to blocking in wake of violent protests against Charlie Hebdo cartoons.’ (Access Now Facebook page 26 January 2015) <https://www.facebook.com/accessnow/posts/10153030213288480> accessed 18 February 2016.

[14] Peter Micek, (Access Now 23 January 2015) ‘Violating International Law, DRC Orders Telcos to Cease Communications Services’ <https://www.accessnow.org/violating-international-law-drc-orders-telcos-vodafone-millicon-airtel/> accessed 18 February 2016.

[15] Confirmed elections in Africa in 2016 include: Central African Republic (14th February), Uganda (18th February), Comoros and Niger (21st February), Rwanda (22nd -27th February), Cape Verde (TBC February), Benin (6th-13th March), Niger, Tanzania and Congo (20th March), Rwanda (22nd March), Chad (10th April), Sudan (11th April), Djibouti (TBC April), Niger (9th May), Burkina Faso (22nd May), Senegal (TBC May), Sao Tome and Principe (TBC July), Zambia (11th July), Cape Verde (TBC August), Tunisia (30th October), Ghana (7th November), Democratic Republic of Congo (27th November), Equatorial Guinea (TBC November), Gambia (1st December), Sudan, and Cote d’Ivoire (TBC December). Other elections without confirmed dates are scheduled to occur in Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Libya, Mali, Guinea, Rwanda, Somalia, and Gabon.

[16] Peter Micek, (Access Now 4 May 2015) ‘Internet kill switches are a violation of human rights law, declare major UN and rights experts’ <https://www.accessnow.org/blog/2015/05/04/internet-kill-switches-are-a-violation-of-human-rights-law-declare-major-un> accessed 18 February 2016.

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