During the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet is essential to save lives and maintain livelihoods in Uganda. People need access to social media and messaging platforms to connect with each other, get important news and updates, keep up with online education, and save their businesses. Government watchdogs, civil society members, and the press need access to the internet to protect people and let the world know what’s happening. They also need it during elections, to participate in their own democracy.
The Uganda government took all of that away anyway, on January 13, 2021, during a disputed election — exactly as many human rights groups predicted it would. Uganda President Museveni said it was in response to Facebook suspending accounts that were suspicious, but regardless of motive, it silenced millions of people, deprived them of connecting with loved ones, prevented access to education, jobs, and religious practice. It took away their sense of belonging and pathways for maintaining their own health, safety, and democratic participation during a pandemic and lockdowns.
Below, we share the personal stories of Ugandans to shed light on the devastating repercussions of this abuse of power and attack on human rights and public health. These stories are from diverse communities in Uganda who participated in Access Now’s Shutdown Stories project. Some Ugandans lost trust in their government, fearing they would be punished for any attempt to get back online, such as using VPNs. Others suffered both practical and emotional hardship from losing human contact and access to information. People with disabilities had their livelihoods halted. Women and girls lost a channel to ensure equitable access to knowledge. Even though the internet censorship and social media blackout has ended, the impact the disruptions had on their lives and rights lingers on.