The government, the Uganda Communications Commission, has written to Google, which owns YouTube, asking it to close at least 14 channels for allegedly for “mobilising riots”.
The protests in November, which followed after the arrest of opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (better known by his musician stage name Bobi Wine) resulted in at least 56 deaths and several injuries.
According to the Daily Monitor, the channels include TMO Online, Lumbuye Fred, Trending Channel UG, Uganda Yaffe, Uganda News Updates, Ghetto TV, Busesa Media Updates, Uganda Empya, Map Mediya TV, KK TV, Ekyooto TV, Namungo Media, JB Muwonge 2 and Bobi Wine 2021.
A close look at all of them, however, reveals that while some of them are inflammatory, peddling false news, political conspiracies, and claims of plots to kill Bobi Wine without any evidence, and generally nasty, but that is not what stands out the most.
Mostly, they torch President Yoweri Museveni, his government, and his family mercilessly. They use graphic footage of killings by the state security forces, denounce tribalism, political violence against the opposition, regime authoritarianism, and corruption.
Some of the claims are overstated, and verge on hate speech, but many have a grain of truth. The platforms also report on political developments that the mainstream media is too cowed to cover. Some of them are hugely popular.
The move by the government to curb them predates them, starting in 2018 with a social media access tax designed, according to rights groups, to muzzle critical voices online, and make it too expensive for their youthful audiences to patronise the platforms.
Subsequently regulations, reinforced recently ahead of the upcoming, required Ugandans who broadcast to large numbers of followers on social media to register with the state agency.
Additionally, journalists covering the campaigns have now been required to register, a move that could cripple the correspondents’ network in the remote towns, and allow the government to muzzle journalists whose coverage, especially of Bobi Wine, it doesn’t approve of.
Because the Kampala government has a long iron reach, it might puzzle some why it can’t just set its dogs on the people running these YouTube.
Well, it’s because the years of crackdown have produced a tech savvy army of Ugandans who know how to hide their digital footprints and, inconveniently, several of them are based out of Uganda.
While Ugandans no longer leave the country en masse for exile as they used to in the years before Museveni came to power, the trend hasn’t stopped.
Every election and the bloody bouts of violence that come with it, produce small exoduses of persecuted opposition supporters fleeing. With every other election, the numbers add up.
Now after nearly 20 years of this drip flight, they are many. They, or their children, have formed a deadly digital army of regime critics, and indeed some of their material, including on internet radios, is chilling. However, seeking to pull them down does nothing.
New ones, perhaps even more extreme, will emerge after the January election. The solution is in Museveni’s hand. He can wear velvet gloves, and walk down an enlightened democratic road. He would silence them all.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]