Uganda: Shrinking civic space marks the January 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about the Internet shutdown, arbitrary arrests and excessive use of force in Uganda in the run-up to, during and after the 14 January 2021 elections. ARTICLE 19’s Eastern Africa Regional Director Mugambi Kiai said:

“The government must immediately release all people who have been arrested solely for expressing their opinion and refrain from clamping down on the civic space.

“These actions have clawed back most of the gains made towards an open society based on an expanded and protected civic space in the country.”

On election day, police raided Hotel Africana in Kampala where a group of civil society activists and election observers had gathered to collect data from election observers at different polling stations across the country. About 20 civil society activists were arrested on allegations of having a parallel tally centre which according to the police spokesperson would undermine the election’s credibility and the electoral commission.

“We would like to remind the Ugandan authorities of the vital role that civil society plays in protecting and promoting human rights. Therefore, we call on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the activists arrested and respect the role civil society plays in a democratic society,” said Mugambi Kiai.

Following months of campaigns characterized by targeted restrictions against dissenting voices, Uganda held presidential and parliamentary elections on 14 January 2021 in which 76-year-old President Yoweri Museveni was seeking a sixth term in office and faced off against young singer turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine among other candidates.

After the elections, Robert Kyagulanyi was placed under house arrest, with the riot police and troops stationed outside his home, denying him access to his lawyers. ARTICLE 19 calls on the Ugandan authorities to stop the unprecedented repression of the opposition and immediately and unconditionally release Robert Kyagulanyi.

A day before the elections, the Ugandan Communication Commission (UCC) ordered internet service providers to suspend all internet getaways and access points in the country until otherwise stated, cutting millions of people off from each other and the rest of the world. The president’s remarks in a national address seemingly claimed the shutdown was in retaliation to Facebook’s “arrogance”. A few days earlier, Facebook had shut down several social media accounts linked to the president’s re-election campaign. Internet was partially restored after five days.

On 24 December 2020, a few weeks to the elections, five activists were arrested and detained. Among them was Nicholas Opiyo, a renowned human rights lawyer and the Executive Director of Chapter Four Uganda, a leading organization dedicated to protecting civil liberties and promoting human rights for all in Uganda. Police alleged that he was arrested on allegations of money laundering and related malicious acts. Opiyo had been vocal against the government’s repressive laws and directives on civil society and had represented two NGOs whose bank accounts had been frozen on allegations of financing terrorist activities. He was later released on bail .

“It is regrettable that at a time when the COVID 19 pandemic is ravaging the world and has forced people to adjust to a new normal where the main avenue to access information is through the internet, the authorities decided to shut down the internet.”

“Such action cannot be justified in international law and points to a calculated move to outlaw space for freedom of association and assembly including in online spaces and denial of access to information and participation in public affairs. The government must commit that they will not control the Internet and ensure it remains open, accessible and secure,” said Mugambi Kiai.

Background

In the run-up to the elections, ARTICE 19 raised concerns regarding an increase in targeted violations, following a series of arbitrarily arrests of opposition presidential candidates and their supporters. The authorities also used excessive force and live ammunition to block them from attending their campaign rallies and disperse crowds during campaign meetings and gatherings under the pretext of enforcing COVID 19 containment measures.

In September, the Ugandan Communication Commission (UCC) put in place punitive measures that required all online data communication and broadcasting services providers to obtain prior authorization from the UCC before providing such services to the public in a move that could be seen as an attempt to restrict media access and coverage during the election period.

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