Perhaps spooked by recent events to the north, the Ugandan government has cracked down hard on a relatively small group of demonstrators who have been protesting a hike in fuel and food prices there. Kizza Besigye, the leader of the so-called Walk to Work protests, was arrested yesterday according to The New York Times, and today Reuters says the government threatened to shut down Facebook and Twitter.
But some are reporting that the government already tried to silence social networking last week, without success. According to allafrica.com, evidently cross-posted from Daily Monitor, "an April 14 letter signed by Mr Quinto Ojok, who signed in acting capacity for UCC's [Uganda Communications Commission] Executive Director Godfrey Mutabazi, said social networking fora like Tweeter [sic] and Facebook, be shut-down for security reasons." The letter reportedly asked Internet service providers to black out the sites for 24 hours, "to eliminate the connection and sharing of information that incites the public."
The move to curb speech on the Internet is straight out of This American Life producer Nancy Updike's 11-step program for Middle East dictators losing power. "Step 1: Turn off the Internet." In this case it's just key social networking sites, but the goal is the same--to prevent dissidents from spreading information. Here's the word from the government today on social networking:
"If someone is telling people to go and cause mass violence and kill people and uses these media to spread such messages, I can assure you we'll not hesitate to intervene and shut down these platforms," Godfrey Mutabazi, executive director of the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), told Reuters.
"We're very alert and monitoring these mediums and if people start promoting dangerous ideas, we'll act like every country would do," he said in an interview.
So far, however, the sites remain live. Plenty of tweets from the last few hours carry Kampala datelines, but one in particular from Bernie Muluu, in neighborhing Kenya, hits home: "[T]he GoU needs to understand that there is a difference between inciting violence and sharing information; hail freedom of speech."