Possible internet shutdown worries election observers in Bunyoro

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Members of Civil Society Organisations in Bunyoro meet to brainstorm on how they can play their role to ensure a democratic election at Hoima Resort Hotel in Hoima City.

Members of the Civil Society Organisations in Bunyoro region have expressed worry that the possible internet shutdown by government especially on the most influential presidential election date will jeopardize the entire independent observatory role.

Their worry comes after the Uganda Standard reported this week that Uganda authorities directed Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the country to switch off Internet Services on the polling day – January 14, 2021 in what critics have described as a crackdown on political dissent.

Some of the services, authorities want disconnected on polling day include WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Mobile Money Services, traditional calls and filters in SMS services.

“Mobile data services (Country wide)-Excluding NON-GSM, Mobile data service (Regional cluster) Excluding NON-GSM, Mobile data services (Country wide) including NON-GSM, and mobile data (Regional cluster) including NON-GSM have to be shut down,” reads the directive to ISPs.

Adding: “Voice, SMS and Data (country wide and full network shutdown, Voice, SMS and Data (Network shutdown on Regional cluster) Data (country wide excluding dedicated APN, Data (Regional cluster excluding dedicated APN and finally MOMO services both country wide and regional cluster, should also be shut down”.

While speaking at the meeting for CSOs in Bunyoro to brainstorm on how they can play their role to ensure democratic election at Hoima Resort Hotel in Hoima city, Mr Martin Zinira, the Executive Director for the Albertine Region Civil Society Network (ARSON), said that an alternative method needed to be employed such that in case internet is totally or partially shut down, communication will continue.

“You know things get rough on the election date. Faces change, security officers change and as you know internet might be shut down. We need to look into all these,” said Mr Zinira.

In 2016, authorities switched off social media citing “national security’’ as the motivation behind restrictions.

The disruptions were ordered by Uganda’s security agencies and the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), which regulates the telecommunications sector, online publications, broadcasting (both radio and television), film industry, postal and courier services.

The same day, President Museveni told journalists that he ordered the blocking of social media: “Steps must be taken for security to stop so many getting in trouble, it is temporary because some people use those pathways for telling lies,” he said.

Many governments especially in democratically developing countries shutdown internet connections as a measure to quell protests and break opponents’ networks that are normally not organised with alternative methods of communications compared to government.

Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Egypt and Sudan are some of the countries that have ever used communication shutdown mechanism to restore order and defeat opponents.

Some members of CSOs listen attentively as brainstorming on how how to handle election observation goes on at Hoima Resort Hotel in Hoima City.

The strategy laid by Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Uganda to ensure reliable and continuous flow of information is mainly looking at use of SMS coded communications and the internet as well.

Mr Robert Muhangi, the Executive Director for Recreation for Development and Peace Uganda (RDP Uganda) shared his experience in the latest general elections when he was reportedly assaulted by the military and had a month of hospitalisation in Masindi.

“It calls for determination and resilience and team work to exercise our roles and duty during elections, he said.

Mr Patrick Mugabi, the Executive Director for Kitara Heritage Development Agency (KHEDA) explored the need to care checking the background of election for observers to avoid using partisan individuals in the exercise.

Ms Jenifer Baitwamasa a Programme Officer at Navigators of Development Association (NAVODA) highlighted the need for security and legal mechanism to rescue observers that might be arrested when guilty or not during elections.

In reaction to the comments of over 60 stakeholders from all over Bunyoro, Mr Ismail Kusemererwa, the Executive Director for the Mid-western Region Anti-corruption Coalition (MIRAC) said that they have prepared lawyers ready to take legal action in relation to possible arbitrary arrests and rescue entangled activists.

On the question of internet shutdown he said that they have prepared documents that will help observers to take notes and report thought it might be delaying compared to direct internet.

On screening the observers to avoid partisan individual he said that the exercise under way and they had already dropped some of the earlier identified observers over failure to meet the set qualities.

MIRAC has rallied 140 persons that will volunteer to serve as election observers during the 2021 general elections in the eight districts of Bunyoro and part of Ruwenzori region.

Their job will be monitoring and reporting the events during elections that will help to assess whether Uganda will have had free and fair elections at the end of the day.

Bunyoro members of CSOs meet to discuss how to ensure free and fair elections.

In case telecommunication and social media platforms will not be disrupted, the observers will report directly to the information centre at the National NGO Forum in Kampala.

However, the forum is not trusted by the government of Uganda as it links it to terrorism though the NGO fraternity in Uganda believes it is a move to sabotage its election observatory strategy.

The National NGO Forum bank account along with that of Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) was frozen at the end.

Ms Monica Kaahwa, the Project Monitoring and Evaluation Officer for MIRAC said that they have created ties with different grass root organisations to ensure that the impact of observers is felt.

Kitara Civil Society Organisations Network (KCSON) is the main coordination agent in Greater Kibaale while RDP Uganda is for Greater Masindi.

The Deployment for Domestic Election Observers for the Uganda 2021 General Elections project is being implemented by MIRAC with support for the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF).

However, the government of Uganda insists that the election will be free and fair.

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