Uganda shut down all social media on Tuesday, after Yoweri Museveni, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, accused Facebook of taking sides in the upcoming presidential election on Thursday.
In a television address on Tuesday evening, the 76-year-old leader who took power in 1986, defended the social media shutdown, and apologized for the inconvenience caused but he said Uganda had no choice after Facebook removed several accounts which backed his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.
“If you want to take sides against the (ruling party), then that group will not operate in Uganda,” he said in a national address.
“We cannot tolerate this arrogance of anybody coming to decide for us who is good and who is bad.”
Facebook said on Monday it had taken down a network of accounts linked to Uganda’s ministry of information for using fake and duplicate accounts to post ahead of this week’s election.
The affected platforms include WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Signal, Viber and Telegram. There are also reports the communications regulator has provided a list of virtual private networks (VPNs)—often used to circumvent local internet restrictions—and ordered telecom operators to block them.
Facebook didn’t immediately respond to the president’s comments on Tuesday but Twitter, which also appeared to be affected by the ban, condemned the move.
“We strongly condemn internet shutdowns – they are hugely harmful, violate basic human rights and the principles of the #OpenInternet,” it said in a statement.
“Access to information and freedom of expression, including the public conversation on Twitter, is never more important than during democratic processes, particularly elections.”
Museveni is facing a challenge from popular singer and opposition lawmaker Bobi Wine, who has attracted a large following among young people in a nation where 80 percent of the population is under 30.
Wine, 38, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has been using Facebook for live coverage of his campaigns and news conferences, saying that many media outlets — most of which are owned by government allies or are state-run — had refused to host him. He is considered the frontrunner among 10 candidates challenging Museveni, the former guerrilla leader.
The International Press Institute, a global media watchdog, called on Uganda to reinstate social media networks.
“Any efforts to block online access to journalists or members of the public are unacceptable breaches of the right to information,” it said in a statement.