Ugandan security forces patrol a checkpoint in Kampala, Uganda, on January 16, 2021, after President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was declared winner of the presidential elections. The Elephant news website, which covers the East African region, was blocked amid other internet disruptions in the lead up to the vote. (AP/Jerome Delay)

Ugandan networks block The Elephant news website before election

Several Ugandan internet networks blocked Kenya-based news website The Elephant in mid-December 2020, according to the site’s publisher, John Githongo, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app in January 2021, and a report by Qurium, a non-profit foundation registered in Sweden that provides hosting services for the website.

Githongo told CPJ on January 19 that the block was still in place. Several people in Uganda told CPJ on January 20 that they could not access the website on one of the affected networks, Airtel Uganda, without a VPN, a virtual private network that can disguise the user’s location to bypass censorship.

CPJ documented multiple attempts to obstruct reporting before Uganda held parliamentary and presidential elections on January 14, 2021. Social media and internet access was disrupted leading up to the vote, and the Uganda Communications Commission, the national broadcasting and telecommunication regulator, ordered telecommunications providers to suspend internet access completely on January 13; journalists also faced arduous accreditation rules and several were assaulted by security personnel. Connectivity was largely restored by January 18, though digital rights group CIPESA and media reports noted ongoing social media disruptions. 

The Elephant, which covers the East African region, has frequently published opinion pieces, features, and analyses sharply critical of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and his government, according to CPJ’s review of its content.

The outlet’s report of the blocking, published January 14, said that the censorship was implemented following a directive from the Uganda Communications Commission and that it had established a mirror site that was still accessible in Uganda. Githongo told CPJ that he did not know the reason for the blocking, and that The Elephant had yet to receive a response to a request for information from the UCC.

The Qurium report said the website was blocked on at least three networks – Airtel Uganda, one of the largest mobile operators in the country, and two other companies, Africell and Liquid Telecom. Tord Lundstrom, Qurium’s chief technology officer, told CPJ that analysis of web traffic to and from Uganda showed signs that the site was blocked through the use of deep packet inspection technology, which can scan and filter traffic passing through the network.

CPJ’s calls and text messages on January 14 and January 20 to UCC spokesperson Ibrahim Bbosa went unanswered. CPJ also tried to reach Ugandan government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo P’Odel, but the phone numberhe has used in the past either did not connect or was busy; he did not respond to a WhatsApp message delivered to his phone.

A Liquid Telecom representative declined to comment on blocking of The Elephant in an email to CPJ on January 14. CPJ’s calls to a telephone number provided on Africell’s Facebook page did not connect; Edgar Karamagi, a company spokesperson, acknowledged an email from CPJ on January 20 but did not respond to questions before publication. CPJ’s emails on January 14 and January 20 to Airtel Africa, which owns Airtel Uganda, and Airtel Uganda public relations manager, Sumin Namaganda, were also unanswered.

Uganda also disrupted access to social media during the February 2016 general election and  President Museveni’s May 2016 inauguration, CPJ reported at the time. In 2019, CPJ documented the UCC ordering a news site, the Daily Monitor, to suspend operations for allegedly failing to comply with registration requirements.