Uganda: Museveni’s fight against fake news after reports of his death

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Thursday, 22 July 2021 20:50, updated on Friday, 23 July 2021 12:50
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni arrives at the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London, UK 20 January 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni is taking his social-media battles to a new front, aiming to control more of the media narrative. Jamilu Ssekyondwa, a resident of Luweero District, 60km north of Kampala, was the first casualty of Museveni's orders - that security agencies should arrest netizens who have been declaring him dead.

Ssekyondwa was easy to locate because he sent a text message to friends, leaving a trail of his phone number. Police say two other people who received a text message from him have also been arrested.

Museveni, who has restricted his outdoor activities due to the pandemic, was perturbed when hundreds of people lined up on roadside to see him as he made a visit to Waskiso – a district neighboring Kampala – to attend a ground breaking ceremony for a pharmaceutical plant. According to Museveni, people were eager to see him following the emergence of fake news that he had died.

Those who were arrested for spreading fake news will be charged with misusing a computer to disturb the peace of the president. Publication of misleading information falls in the broader category of ‘fake news’ but this is not a crime in Uganda, as it was decriminalised almost two decades ago. However, security agencies are leveraging a new law on computer misuse enacted a decade ago to apprehend purveyors of fake news.

The false claim, that Museveni had died, is not the only one that has been targeting the first family and circulating in Uganda. On 27 June, Ugandans woke up to another fake report that the president was suffering from coronavirus and had been airlifted to Germany for treatment. This was followed by another false claim that the president’s son – Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who days earlier had been promoted to commander of land forces, the third most senior office in the army – had succumbed to coronavirus at a Nairobi hospital.

Orders from the president are rarely inconsequential. Stella Nyanzi – an academic who was expelled from Makerere University, Uganda’s top university – spent 16 months in prison for writing a poem on Facebook, in which she used vulgar language to abuse the president and his deceased mother. She was released in February 2020.

Pop star-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine — Museveni’s main challenger — has been using social media to rally his young base. During and after the January 2021 elections, when Wine lost to Museveni, the authorities arrested some of his supporters and detained them in unknown facilities.

In previous election cycles, oppositionist Kizza Besigye led his supporters to protest on the streets of Kampala. However, Wine’s calls for protests against election rigging, torture and abductions have fallen on deaf ears, as they did not materialise.

Faceless digital warriors

Any arrest beyond that of Jamilu Ssekyondwa would unmask the faces behind many seemingly pseudo accounts spreading fake news, attacking government officials and discrediting government programmes. For instance, from 1 June – when the IMF announced a $1bn agreement – to 28 June – when it was approved by the IMF board – many Wine supporters launched social-media campaigns against the deal.

The IMF tweet was met with replies such as: “You are giving money to a dictator”or “Your money is being used to suppress and murder Ugandans” and even “Museveni stole the elections, he is not the president”.

The Africa Report counted more than 220 IMF tweets in June and early June that featured replies from Ugandans. They were coming from accounts with around 20, 30 or 40 followers, an indication these could be bot accounts.

Charles Twiine, a spokesperson for the Uganda Police Criminal Investigations Department, says they have skilled cyber security and forensic analysts who are working to unmask criminals on social media. “I want to tell the general public that you don’t dare the police of today,” he says. “We have got a good laboratory with highly trained and proficient investigators that can be in position [to] detect and trail where this information comes from.”

Criticism from abroad

Government contends that originators of fake news are Ugandans living abroad. “It’s a scheme for some people who are actually outside that are trying to create grounds for getting political asylum,” Twiine argues.

Security agencies have set their sights on Lumbuye Fred, a Ugandan vlogger based in Turkey, who has distinguished himself as a key purveyor of fake news. To augment fake news that the president had died, Lumbuye came up with an outrageous theory that Museveni had told his family never to declare him dead until a year later after his death.

He even claimed that the first family was hiding Museveni’s dead body. Surprisingly, the video has got more than 23,ooo likes, with many viewers applauding him for giving ‘accurate information’.

Uganda Police says countries where the purveyors of fake news live are being engaged through diplomatic channels to find possible ways of extraditing suspects. These countries, police say, have also been notified that if they are to give these people asylum, it should be on other grounds and not that they are being politically persecuted.

Analyst says it doesn’t help

Nicholas Opiyo, a prominent human rights lawyer in Uganda, says arrests should not be the only way of dealing with fake news. He argues that instead of arresting and prosecuting people for lampooning and making fun of the president, Museveni should have simply communicated that he is not dead.

Goloba Mutebi, a political scientist, says it doesn’t help when the opposition focuses on spreading fake news against the president and republishing images of election violence. “We have seen those images of violence during the election so many times. They aren’t news anymore,” he says.

Equally, Goloba reckons, it doesn’t help when the state focuses on crackdown of fake-news transmitters. He says both opposition and government should use social media to disseminate information about their programs and policies.

Facebook still blocked

When the government lifted a total internet blackout after the January 2021 presidential election, the ban on Facebook was still maintained. The ban was extended after the tech giant declined to restore accounts of government employees in the information ministry that were suspended days to the election, for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour to popularise pro-government posts.

However, the Facebook ban seems to have hurt government more than the opposition. In adherence to the interdiction, several government  agencies, ministries and prominent figures abandoned Facebook, yet it is the most popular social-media platform in the country. The social media platform has more than 3.8 million daily active users in the country. Museveni’s Facebook page, with more than a million followers, was last updated on 11 January 2021.

But opposition figures such as Wine and his supporters continue to use the platform. They access Facebook through virtual private networks (VPNs) which became popular after introduction of a daily USh200 ($0.06) social-media tax in 2018.

For many Ugandans, Facebook is their first point of entry to the greater internet. By blocking Facebook, they are going against their own principle of trying to engage with citizens through social-media platforms.

The tax was scrapped at the start of July and replaced with a 12% tax on internet data. Duncan Abigaba, deputy director of the Government Citizen Interaction Center (GCIC) – an agency supporting government programmes on social media – says “maybe 90% of government personalities and agencies are no longer using Facebook.” The Facebook ban, he says, may have disfranchised more than half of Ugandans who can’t access the platform.

Abigaba is among government employees whose accounts were suspended by Facebook. And after six months waiting for return of his account, he opened another at the start of July. In one of his first posts, he said: “My Facebook is literally dysfunctional. Snail speed. Which VPN are you using?”

Juliet Nanfuka – a researcher at Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa – says in recent years, Uganda’s government has been encouraging its employees and agencies to seize opportunities to interact with citizens using social media. “For many Ugandans, Facebook is their first point of entry to the greater internet,” she says. “By blocking Facebook, they are going against their own principle of trying to engage with citizens through social-media platforms.”

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