Internet shutdowns have become a new norm of controlling views during election period in many African countries. Recently, the Tanzanian government shut down SMS and Internet service providers ahead of election held on September 28 that saw President John Magufuli retain the presidency.
The 2016 General Election was highlighted for the social media blackout that happened on February 18, 2016 on the eve of the presidential election. Uganda has experienced four major Internet shutdowns between 2006 and 2016 and all are election-related. This brought to the increased download of Virtual Private Networks (VPN) apps that Ugandans used to beat the social media blackout and to keep information going during the election.
With the introduction of stringent cyber laws and social media tax, it is evident that the cyber space in Uganda are increasingly being curtailed and dissent is discouraged. It is evident for Ugandans, that the use of social media continues to change as we dive deeper into the election cycle. With less than 60 days to the January 14 General Election, it is imperative for different stakeholders in the election to safeguard the channels that are available to ease communication, more so now, while we are in a hybrid campaign season that requires utilising virtual space.
Evidently, autocracies continue to curtail digital rights, censor media houses and send others into self-imposed censorship. It is important for all stakeholders in the elections to find a way to champion a movement that can provide alternatives to the electorate in having their voices heard before, during and after elections.
Internet shutdowns continue to rise in the East Africa region yet there is a lot of legislation and policy for cyber space and digital platforms. The shrinking space for civic engagement and online activism in an overtly digitalised world, continue to undermine freedoms of speech and association. With all the available legal provisions to regulate the digital space, shutdowns should be less opted for in the electoral cycle as a mechanism to curtail false news and information.
For a more transparent, free and fair election, communication during election is paramount in reducing mistrust in the electorate in the legitimacy of the process. Therefore, it is the mandate of the electorate, non-government organisations, the State and other stakeholders, to be at the forefront of ensuring that the cyber space and the digital rights of the citizens are not violated in any form.
In addition, it is imperative for the electorate to use the cyber space and operate within the rights established to ensure that their actions in media and digital spaces do not affect other parties. In curbing fake news and inciting violence, the electorate are mandated to care before they share.
Verify and check facts in the heat and desire to break the news first.
In retracting Internet shutdowns, the electorate can devise VPN that can help them access the Internet and continue to receive and share information on the dynamics in the electoral cycle, this will keep them ready for the eventualities that might come from censorship of the different ISPs and other communication channels.
Non-State organisations that highlight the electoral processes of Uganda can champion an online digital rights violations tracker that will benefit the electorate, human rights activists and defenders to advocate digital rights protection during and after the election process. They can also use the tracker to hold different people accountable in the courts of law for violating these digital rights. Therefore, it is important for us as the electorate to continue to educate ourselves on how we can harness the blessing of cyber space in our election cycle without violating each other’s rights.
Ms Tricia Gloria Nabaye is the resident research associate- Great Lakes Institute for strategic email@example.com