Ugandan authorities on Tuesday ordered telecoms to shut down social media and messaging services, just two days before a tense presidential election.

In a letter seen by AFP, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) Executive Director Irene Sewankambo ordered telecommunications companies to ‘immediately suspend any access and use’ of social media and online messaging platforms.

An industry insider who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity said the order was first communicated in ‘nasty and aggressive’ phone calls to the telecommunications companies on Tuesday morning.

The calls made it clear the order was retaliation for Facebook deleting pro-government accounts for seeking to manipulate public debate before Thursday’s key polls.

Users were turning to Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to bypass the blockade.

President Yoweri Museveni, power in power since 1986 – is running against Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine, a singer who became a Member of Parliament in 2017.

What sites have been cut?

Even before Tuesday’s shutdown, users had been complaining that internet speeds had slowed down significantly since Saturday.

The list of banned social media sites include Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Signal and Viber. Some of these were already offline on Tuesday.

On Monday, a list of over 100 virtual private networks was distributed to internet service providers by the UCC with orders to block them, according to the insider.

UCC spokesman Ibrahim Bbosa told AFP: “I am not aware of a directive to switch off internet or social media platforms.”

There was no word from the four major telecom companies that operate in the east African country.

Not the first shutdown

On election day in 2016, Uganda cut access to social media citing national security. Then President Yoweri Museveni was facing a tough challenge from veteran activist Kizza Besigye.

Authorities also suspended mobile transfers of money. In 2019, the government introduced a tax on the use of the internet which activists have called an attempt at controlling free speech.

The president has repeatedly criticized ‘young people for using the internet to spread rumors’.

According to figures from the communications regulator, Uganda has 20 million internet subscriptions.