Critical Web site still blocked on eve of presidential election

New York, February 22, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned that the Ugandan government has blocked internal access to a critical Web site, Radio Katwe, in the run-up to Thursday’s hotly contested presidential election. The site has been blocked in Uganda for more than a week, according to news reports and local journalists.

The state-owned daily New Vision and the independent daily The Monitor reported this week that the government-controlled Uganda Communications Commission had directed Uganda’s leading telecommunications company, MTN, to block the site. An MTN statement, quoted by The Monitor, defended the decision to block the site, saying that Ugandan law “empowers the commission to direct any telecoms operator to operate networks in such a manner that is appropriate to national and public interest.”

A spokesman for the ruling National Resistance Movement told New Vision that the government had complained to the U.S.-based Web server which hosts Radio Katwe, Brinkster Communications Corporation, claiming that the site was publishing “malicious and false information against the party and its presidential candidate.” Brinkster Vice President of Operations Paul Murdock told CPJ that the company had not received any official communication or any request from the Ugandan government to shut down the site.

Radio Katwe publishes a range of stories, including extremely critical reports targeting President Yoweri Museveni, his family, and his ruling party. The site encourages readers to submit stories for publication but does not identify individual authors or editors. Radio Katwe said it had received up to 71,000 hits in one day.

“We’re troubled by the government’s decision to unilaterally block a critical Web site,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We are concerned that this could signal a wider effort to stifle the expression of controversial opinions during an election period.”

Local journalists have expressed fears that the government could similarly block The Monitor‘s Web site on election day, when the newspaper plans to keep a running tally of votes from across the country. “Our Web site has been going offline every day for the last three days,” for several hours at a time, Monitor Group Managing Director Conrad Nkutu told CPJ. He added that while the problem appeared be a technical glitch, “we are also suspicious it might not be.”