Social Media, Internet Freedom and the State: Whose Online Security is Being Safeguarded?

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Kampala’s third Press Plenary kicked off at the Imperial Hotel last Thursday morning with a concerned speech about free speech on the internet by Swedish Ambassador Per Lindgärde. It was poorly attended. The sparse audience of journalists and Civil Society Organization staff had gathered to listen to a panel of government ministers, human rights activists, and a telecom CEO discuss the implications of state cyber surveillance for Ugandan media. On that note, Lindgärde’s opening remarks were diplomatically targeted at President Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) administration who, the Ambassador lamented obliquely, had recently shut down social media “on certain occasions.” If the obvious reference to the NRM’s social media blackout on the night of last February’s election struck a nerve with government panelists Frank Otunno (Information and Communication Technology Ministry spokesman) (ICT) and Akello Mugisha (National Internet Technology Authority Uganda) (NITA), neither showed any reaction.

Neither Otunno nor his boss, ICT Minister Hon. Frank Tumwebaze, had much to say about that fateful night. Nothing, that is, beyond the standard NRM line that the social media freeze came in the interest of public safety. It was left to human-rights lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo of Uganda’s Chapter Four, and privacy advocate, Geoffrey Wokullra of Unwanted Witness, to address the political costs of the so-called “Arab Spring effect,” where Third World states have recently deployed their security forces against their own citizens following anti-government demonstrations popularized on Facebook. Namely, the Ugandan state has shamelessly exaggerated the dark side of online political protest movements, symbolized by Egypt’s abortive “Facebook Revolution” and the Islamist attacks on the American embassy at Benghazi, to overextend its legitimate responsibility to safeguard against reasonable cyber threats like terrorism and child pornography.

To quote Mr. Opiyo, “national security has become a buzzword” the NRM government bandies about to justify its crude manhandling of Uganda’s cyber space to suit its political ends. By ‘crude,’ Opiyo and Air Tel CEO Anwar Soussa emphasized that neither Air Tel nor Uganda’s intelligence apparatus presently have the capacity to closely monitor the online lives of private citizens. They do have the power and, evidently, the inclination to turn off social media when Statehouse feels it would rather hide behind a Facebook blackout than face off with the people it claims to lead.

This, I suspect, is why the Plenary went largely ignored; why even as Mr. Wokullra warned that the Hotel Wi-Fi the steadily thinning audience was Tweeting on may have been compromised by malicious Spyware, few bothered to listen. If, as Mr. Opiyo candidly admitted, the most serious cyber threats to online privacy come from within (and should primarily concern) the country’s elite business community, this is at most a distant afterthought among the throngs of mostly young Ugandans who found themselves unable to communicate, debate, and mobilize among themselves via social media last election night.

It seems the stark lack of interest in the Press Plenary was not, as I’d first expected, because it was another quintessentially aid-driven, Mzungu-sponsored dialogue on human rights issues perhaps lower down on Uganda’s list of national priorities than Ambassador Lindgärde would care to admit. It wasn’t apathy I was looking at. It was resignation.

If anything, the firestorm of controversy touched off by the so-called “Arab Spring effect” last February shows that Ugandans, especially young Ugandans, were passionately engaged in the political culture the Press Plenary was designed to showcase. But so long as voters can expect the pat answer that, to paraphrase Otunno, “we shut down Facebook and WhatsApp to protect you” it’s no wonder the event was been poorly attended. When governments treat their citizens like children, they get the response resentful children show their parents: The silent treatment.

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