In an unusual state act, the Uganda government blocked some selected Rwanda online media outlets last week and Rwanda retaliated by doing the same the following day.
This act is a first in the history of relations between the two troubled─but traditionally allied states. The deed is also a first in the history of, sometimes, squabbling East Africa member states. Never before have states in the region quarreled and responded by each blocking the other’s online media.
Revealingly, the action was taken only a day after Presidents Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni had signed a memorandum of understanding outlining what the two leaders committed to do: to end the conflict that has been festering since early this year.
In justifying his decision, the Executive Director of Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) Mr. Godfrey Mutabazi told the media that these media outlets are “hostile” and could “cause insecurity” in Uganda.
Speaking to The East African newspaper on August 23, Mutabazi said: “We have blocked it (The New times)” because “the newspaper had been identified by a government agency in charge of internal security as….a hostile platform that is likely to cause insecurity in this country”.
Besides The New Times, Igihe was also blocked, among others.
The Director-General of Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA), Lt. Col. Patrick Nyirishema was also quoted confirming: “When I spoke to UCC, they made it clear that they [had] blocked sites which they considered hostile…I told them that we were going to take the same action”.
True to Nyirishema’s word, selected Ugandan media houses, including the state owned New Vision, among others were also blocked.
After this unusual deed, many citizens in both countries criticized the act as contrary to the spirit embedded in the signed memorandum of understanding, and an infringement on media freedom.
Others argued that media neither arrests Rwandan citizens in Uganda nor funds dissidents or closes borders or sabotages economies, and that what it does, they argued, is to report happenings and what public officials do in the name of their citizens.
Others claimed that, indeed, some media houses were compounding the conflict and deserve the punishment.
Beyond these arguments however, this Ugandan act and Rwanda’s counter─act point to four broader trends: The first is the role of spoilers in peacemaking and conflict management; the second is the growing power of “borderless” media to affect events in other countries due to developments in information communication technology; the third is the increasing ability of governments to control freedom of expression even in the age of the internet and social media and, finally, future wars are online and driven by technology.
To explain, spoilers refer to entities, institutions, parties or individuals that have an interest in or benefit from continued conflict rather than its resolution.
By this definition, and because Presidents Kagame and Museveni had signed an MoU the previous day, clever people who derive a living from dissecting peacemaking and conflict management issues would name blockers of the aforementioned media houses and those who gave them instructions to do so as “Spoilers” of the peace deal.
For as you will note, for example, the Executive-Director of UCC clearly stated that his decision to block the media was informed by “internal security”. Now, one can say that both were acting in concert with their boss who had signed the MoU or that if they weren’t, they should have been severely sanctioned for undermining peace.
But as past media reports indicated, it wouldn’t be new or surprising that some in security agencies benefit from continued conflict and therefore misinform, nor would it be surprising that in each system there are hardliners who would derail it.
Secondly, it would be erroneous to think that blocking online media as in this case is a one off; it’s a trend that will grow as governments develop capacities to determine that this or that media outlet is “subversive” and deserve to be offline.
In fact, this trend extends even to social media and some countries in the region are putting up or have already enacted legislation either to make it very expensive to communicate using social media─for example the 2018 social media tax in Uganda or the 2018 electronic and postal communication law that requires even bloggers to pay US$930 to register and operate a blog, etc.
Besides that, we know that during highly contested elections─as in the 2016 presidential elections in Uganda or protests─as in Sudan, social media was blocked.
This tells us that, as state repression of the media goes online, media watchdogs and press freedom activists will have to up their game to try to match state-sponsored repression.
That also tells us that traditional regulation might become obsolete as mainstream media migrates and repression goes online; a factor that, for example explains why Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), which is supposed to regulate media content is nowhere in this picture; despite the fact that officials claim we have “media self-regulation”.
This trend isn’t new. Historically, every time technology has changed, media regulation has followed suit along with modes of media repression; although, traditionally, the state has monopolized the latter.
More critically, since other services like banking, voting, power distribution system, computer networks, water systems, transportation, communications and other services are going online in the region as they have in other more developed political systems, future war won’t be physical but online.
That’s what clever people call cyber warfare; which means that attacks on a nation’s vital infrastructure and interests can be effected using technology.
In other words, future wars will be online; not in the bushes.