Uganda blocks Facebook ahead of controversial election

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NAIROBI, Kenya – The Ugandan president has blocked Facebook from operating in his country, just days after the social media company removed bogus accounts linked to his government ahead of the hotly contested general election scheduled to take place on Thursday.

In a televised speech late on Tuesday night, President Yoweri Museveni accused Facebook of “arrogance” and said he had asked his government to shut down the platform, as well as other social media.

“This social channel you are talking about, if it is to work in Uganda, it should be used fairly by all who have to use it,” Museveni said. “We cannot tolerate this arrogance of whoever comes to decide for us who is good and who is bad,” he added.

The Facebook ban comes at the end of an election period that has been marked by a crackdown on political opposition, harassment of journalists and nationwide protests that have left at least 54 dead and hundreds of arrests, officials said.

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Mr Museveni, 76, who is running for a sixth term, faces 10 rivals, including rapper-turned-lawmaker Bobi Wine, 38. Mr Wine, real name Robert Kyagulanyi, was beaten, sprayed with tear gas and indicted in court for allegedly flouting coronavirus rules during the election campaign.

Last week, Mr. Wine filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court, accusing Mr. Museveni and other current and former senior security officials of sanctioning a wave of violence and human rights abuses. man against citizens, politicians and human rights lawyers.

Facebook announced this week that it had removed a network of accounts and pages in the East African nation that engaged in what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior” aimed at manipulating public debate around the election. The company said the network is linked to the Government Citizens Interaction Center, an initiative that is part of Uganda’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology and National Guidance.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the network “uses fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, pose as users, re-split posts into groups for them. make it look more popular than they were ”.

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Facebook’s investigation into the network began after research by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab exposed a network of social media accounts that had embarked on a campaign to criticize the opposition and promote M Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement. After the research was published, Twitter also said it had closed accounts linked to the election.

Hours before Mr Museveni’s speech, social media users across Uganda confirmed restrictions on their online communications, with digital rights group NetBlocks reporting that platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter had been affected.

Uganda blocked the internet in its 2016 election, and in 2018 it introduced a social media tax aimed at boosting income and curbing what the government has called online ‘gossip’. The move, criticized as a threat to freedom of expression, had a negative effect on internet use as a whole, with millions of Ugandans having completely abandoned internet services.

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In anticipation of another shutdown this week, a group of organizations working to end internet shutdowns around the world sent a letter to Mr Museveni and the leaders of telecommunications companies in Uganda pleading with them to keep the internet and social media platforms accessible during elections.

Mr. Museveni did not hear their appeal. On Tuesday evening, he said the decision to block Facebook was “unfortunate” but “inevitable.”

“I am very sorry for the inconvenience caused,” he said, adding that he himself had used the platform to interact with young voters. He has nearly a million followers on Facebook and two million on Twitter.

Striking a provocative note, Museveni said if Facebook was going to “take sides” then it would not be allowed to operate in the country.

“Uganda is ours,” he said.

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