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Uganda is blocking Facebook ahead of controversial elections

NAIROBI, Kenya – Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has blocked Facebook from operating in his country, just days after the social media company removed fake accounts linked to his government ahead of a hotly contested election on Thursday.

In a televised speech late Tuesday night, Mr Museveni accused Facebook of “arrogance” and said he had instructed his government to shut down the platform along with other social media, even though Facebook was the only one he named.

“The social channel you are talking about, if it is to work in Uganda, it must be used equally with everyone who is going to use it,”

; Museveni said. “We can not tolerate this arrogance by having someone decide for us who is good and who is bad,” he added.

The ban on Facebook comes at the end of an election period that has been left behind with a hard blow to the political opposition, harassment of journalists and nationwide protests that have led to at least 54 deaths and hundreds of arrests, according to officials.

Mr. Museveni, 76, who is fighting for a sixth term, faces 10 rivals, including rapper-legislator Bobi Wine, 38. Mr. Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, has been beaten, sprayed with tear gas and charged in court with allegedly violating coronavirus rules while on the campaign trail.

Last week, Mr. Wine filed a complaint to the International Criminal Court, accusing Mr. Museveni and other top current and former security officials to sanction a wave of violence and human rights violations 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 were dealing with what it called “coordinated unauthentic behavior” with the aim of manipulating the public debate around the election. The company said the network was linked to the Government Citizens Interaction Center, an initiative that is part of Uganda’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology and National Guidance.

In a statement, a Facebook representative said the network “used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, mimic users, redistribute posts in groups to make them appear more popular than they were.”

Facebook’s investigation of the network began after research from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab revealed a network of social media accounts that had engaged in a campaign to criticize the opposition and promote Mr. Museveni and the ruling party, the 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 confirmed social media users across Uganda’s restrictions on their online communications, with digital rights group NetBlocks reporting that platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter had been affected.

On Wednesday, MTN Uganda, the country’s largest telecommunications company, confirmed that it had received a directive from the Uganda Communications Commission to “suspend access or use directly or otherwise of all social media platforms and instant messaging applications over the network so far.

Felicia Anthonio, a campaigner for digital rights nonprofit Access Now, said authorities had blocked more than 100 virtual private networks or VPNs that could help users circumvent censorship and securely surf the Internet.

Uganda blocked the Internet during the 2016 election, and in 2018 it introduced a tax on social media aimed at raising revenue and limiting what the government called “gossip” online. The move, which was criticized as a threat to free speech, had a negative impact on internet use everywhere, where millions of Ugandans completely abandoned internet services.

In anticipation of another shutdown this week, a group of organizations working to end Internet outages around the world sent a letter to Mr. Museveni and the leaders of telecommunications companies in Uganda asked them to keep internet and social media platforms available during the election.

Sir. Museveni did not obey their call. On Tuesday night, he said the decision to block Facebook was “unfortunate” but “inevitable.”

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

Sir. Museveni struck a defiant note, saying that if Facebook were to “take sides”, it would not be allowed to operate in the country.

“Uganda is ours,” he said.

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