Saturday, April 16, 2011

Civil unrest in Uganda
Chaos Thurs, Fri leads to arrests; Govmt resorts to censorship

A reported 220 people were arrested Thursday in anti-government profests in Kampala, while similar protests in Gulu left three persons dead. On Friday, 70 students were injured and 7 arrested in protests at Makerere Univ in Kampala. For more on the protest movement, dubbed "walk to work", see The Daily Monitor newspaper or #walktowork on Twitter. (Photo-Makerere students protest; from Daily Monitor).

My Ugandan friends are all worried about whether these protests will become more frequent, widespread, and violent. Even government supporters are angry at the bullying tactics used against protesters. Are these fairly small outbursts or harbingers of larger, better organized protests? Is the government in jeopardy? I agree with one Ugandan friend who believes that these tremors may be the beginning of a process that undermines the government. Opposition politicians are using the economy, especially inflation, as an excuse for the protests. However, if inflation here continues at 11%, the politics will become secondary to the economy. I'm not sure politics can galvanize Ugandans. However, I think the economy can.

Media Censorship
Especially alarming to those of us in media are reports that the government is turning to censorship in an attempt to put a lid on the unrest. (See article below from the Daily Monitor). The article's claim that the government is moving to ban live coverage of the protests seems to be both plausible and proven.

On the subject of cyber-censorship, the Monitor article alludes to possible blocking of the newspaper's website, but doesn't offer any proof. The Observer newspaper has an online article detailing Internet network outages, but offers no proof of government censorship. (Click here to read this piece yourself). There are also other Twitter rumors of government blocking Internet, but again, nothing concrete or proven.

Whether it's banning live coverage (proven) or blocking the Internet (rumored), this kind of censorship usually backfires. The Internet blackout in Egypt helped public opinion to coalesce against Mubarak's government. This is 2011, and even in Uganda, international media proliferate. If Ugandan media is muzzled, the population here will simply turn to radio stations from neighboring countries or from international sources like BBC radio or Voice of America. Heavy-handed attempts to control information do not reflect the reality of today's media rich world, but instead reveal desperation and antiquated Soviet-style notions about how to manipulate the public.

From the Daily Monitor: Government Bans Live Broadcasts of Events

The government last evening moved to curtail major broadcasting houses when it banned live broadcast of news events around the walk-to-work campaign. BBC’s Joshua Mali told Daily Monitor that a senior source at one of the TV stations affected spoke to him on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) reportedly directed radio and television stations to stop running live coverage of the events.

Peter Mwesige, a media consultant and trainer, called the directive to broadcasters “absolutely ridiculous”. “If it is true, it would be a profound violation to freedom of expression and the right of the people to know what is taking place around them and how they are governed,” he said. “You should absolutely defy it. It is illegal. It is unconstitutional.”

Meanwhile, Internet access for some companies including Daily Monitor was interrupted for some time yesterday afternoon. As a result, this newspaper’s ability to update its website and other web-based media with live feeds was compromised.

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