A few weeks ago, Public Relations Officer of the Uganda Police Force, Fred Enanga, while addressing the press at the police headquarters in Naguru, revealed to the nation that two IT experts had been arrested and were to be probed at the Criminal Investigations Directorate in Kibuli for allegedly using social media networks to incite the public through spreading messages of hate, sectarianism, and militarism.
On Monday, 29 February, Enanga said that security had observed with distress, the increasing volume of propaganda calling the masses to violence and encouraging them into all manner of defiance through holding unlawful assemblies.
According to security operatives in the country, this is exactly what had been envisaged before the controversial switching off of all social media networks ahead of the February 18 Presidential and Parliamentary elections as well as recently on May 12, 2016 when President Museveni was being sworn in for his fifth term of office.
In an interview with the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Amos Olweny at the Ministry Of Internal Affairs, he intimated that freedom of expression is not necessarily absolute and when everybody is able to communicate, it is a threat to national security. “So, in the wisdom of government it was decided to temporarily have a blackout until the right information of Electoral Commission was out,” he said. Olweny thumps his chest over the shutdown since, apparently, police succeeded in giving no chance to insecurity, knowing how people can communicate false information and arouse a situation which may not be easy to handle.
However, regardless of how the men keeping law and order looked at it, it was never to pass mildly. Social media junkies have until now continued to express their dismay over the unprecedented clamp down on the networking sites.
Claire Rukundo is one of the thousands that are until now still disgruntled by the telecom to succumb to the orders from government to shut down social media platforms.
“Shame on you Airtel for proceeding with an illegal directive,” she laments. “You disrespected your clients. America’s Apple was ordered by a judge to cross the line but Apple is still trying to protect their clients. Conversely, as soon as Uganda’s Telecoms were asked to violate the people’s rights, they did in less than a day. You didn’t even try going to court. Shame On You.” Claire slams telecoms.
Meanwhile the spokesperson of government, Ofwono Opondo who also doubles as the NRM Spokesman reiterates that government was responsible for the blackout and it was for a good cause. When asked about the motive behind the move, the President, in a post election press conference reaffirmed that it had been done for security purposes so that individuals who misuse it through peddling lies would be dealt away with.
It’s still not clear what government intends to do with the prevailing freedoms of people [on social media] to express their sentiments that on many occasions are even dissenting of government. The recent discovery of the Virtual Private Network does not make it seem that they’ll be looking the other way.
As soon as it dawned on Ugandans, on the eve of Election Day, that the social media sites had been blocked, they were astonishingly too quick to come up with a remedy. This remedy was the [until then] unknown VPN, an acronym for Virtual Private Network by which many Ugandans were able to bypass restrictions and get back “on air” with ease. Within a few hours, thousands of social media users had downloaded the VPN App and accessing Facebook, Twitter and Whatsup. In just about 48 hours, over 1.5 million apps are said to have been downloaded.
It all looks like government was unexpectedly outsmarted, albeit there’s been no admission of the fact. Commissioner Olweny had this to say, “It’s not that government wanted to blackout all means communication. It was not intended to cut off everyone completely. Otherwise VPN is an opening we could easily disable if we so chose. But for as long as we were achieving our objective which is peace and security, we allowed our people to get away with the bypass.
On whether social media should be regulated, the Commissioner of Police is cagey, as he thinks that it should be the job of politicians in the executive and legislative arms of government to make judgment over the matter. However, he keeps an opinion that there are potentially big crimes that people commit behind computerized gadgets. And that this is why Police has a media / IT Department to deal with such cyber crimes. He therefore guesses there will be stricter statutes to streamline the use of social media networks and that it’s only prudent.
“Freedom cannot be absolute – not anywhere,” he emphasizes.