When Ugandan police arrested a bespectacled IT analyst named Robert Shaka last year, it seemed at last the end of an elaborate multi-year game of cat and mouse between the government and one of its most vocal critics.
For nearly four years, they claimed, Mr. Shaka had been masquerading as Tom Voltaire Okwalinga (TVO), a viral Facebook poster known for his salacious, all-caps political screeds, which included allegations of high-level government embezzlement, vote-rigging, and fraud – as well as a deluge of colorfully photo-shopped memes about President Yoweri Museveni and his cronies.
In that time, TVO had ducked and dodged exposure, all the while racking up tens of thousands of followers from ranks of the young and disaffected, many of whom have lived their whole lives under the rule of Mr. Museveni – in power since 1986 – and greeted the Facebook mole’s critiques with hungry excitement.
But now, it seemed, the jig was up. Shaka, his lawyers were told, had “issued offensive communications against the sovereign state of Uganda, bringing it into hatred and contempt.” He could go to jail – perhaps for a very long time.
Then something unexpected happened. As Shaka sat in a Kampala police station, far from his phone and computer, a new post popped up on TVO’s feed. Then another.
“You must release Robert Shaka with immediate effect … He is not even TVO,” the account wrote gleefully. “I advise you to continue looking for TVO until you grow grey hair, and by that time it will be TVO looking for you.”
Shaka was released soon after – though charges against him remain pending. TVO, meanwhile, ploddingly continued his – or her, or their – work, the whodunit of the police search for the mole’s identity quickly buried under a mountain of new rants and exposes.
If TVO has narrowly escaped censure – for now anyway – much of the more traditional Ugandan media has not been so lucky. National elections – which will see Museveni face off against two of his former confidantes, Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi, in the closest presidential contest in recent history – take place this Friday. And in the run-up journalists – particularly those working for rural radio stations far from the prying eyes of the international community – have faced arrest, assault, and dismissals for covering opposition politics and protests. Even more chilling is a widespread culture of self-censorship, which many in the media here say is a necessary tool for professional survival, both in and outside of election season.
It’s into this void that Facebook accounts like TVO have stepped – offering up news that doesn’t play by any rule book, bypassing both government restrictions or the traditional ethics of journalism. TVO, for instance, gossips shamelessly, names names, and sometimes veers towards the melodramatic, calling politicians “retards” and “demagogues” and referring to life under Museveni as “slavery.” But despite his decidedly casual style, many of TVO's most ambitious claims have, ultimately, been proven true.
“The regime has groomed people like [TVO] because people cannot express themselves in the traditional way, in the traditional media,” says Mulindwa Mukasa, an investigative journalist and cameraman who lost much of his equipment in a mysterious break-in to his Kampala home last month. “People are hungry for information, but because we cannot relay the information in the ways they want, they resort to [social media].”
Intimidating the media
TVO is not the first of his kind in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2013, for instance, a Zimbabwean Facebook user with nearly half a million subscribers calling themselves “Baba Jukwa” made waves when he predicted – correctly – the mysterious death of a politician critical of the president in the lead up to the controversial national elections. A rumored $300,000 bounty was placed on Baba Jukwa’s head and a state-run newspaper accused the user of being unpatriotic and “cherish[ing] colonial conquest.”
In Uganda, however, intimidation tactics are often far subtler. Although occasionally enforced by outright threats – beating, confiscation of equipment, and arrest – much of the media’s silence is bought indirectly, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. For instance, a large number of radio stations – the primary news source for some nine in 10 Ugandans – are owned by either government or local political leaders, who often simply threaten to fire journalists who step out of line. Stations shut down by the government after hosting opposition candidates, meanwhile, are told they are being shuttered not for voicing dissident views, but simply because they didn’t pay their licensing fees on time.
“No station has been switched off for editorial reasons [or] for ethical concerns,” Ofwono Opondo, deputy spokesman for the ruling National Resistance Movement, told a group of visiting foreign reporters in a group interview last week
For years, one of the most popular forms of unscripted media here were the bimeeza, or open-air, out-of-studio talk shows that offered individuals a chance to air grievances about governance and politics. But in 2009, Museveni ordered all bimeeza to be taken off the air after alleging one such program led to violent protests, arguing that “news and information is good, but when journalists tell lies and cause a crisis, they will be dealt with according to the law.”
Accessing the news
In a sense, social media users like TVO provide kind of new, high-tech bimeeza, but with one crucial difference – their audience. Internet penetration in the country, including both computer and mobile, hovers around only 15 percent, and remains the purview of an educated and largely urban elite.
In a telling statistic, the vast majority of Ugandans who tweeted about the January presidential debate, for instance, did so in English, rather than a local language, according to Richard Ngamita, a data engineering consultant who analyzed the Twitter data for Outbox, a Kampala tech incubator.
“When you look at Uganda, the ruling party has a lot of ways to control the information flows, so social media certainly provides a platform that’s more difficult to regulate,” says Maria Burnett, a senior researcher at HRW who co-authored the Uganda media report. “But while I think social media use in this election is interesting, it’s important to remember that most Ugandans aren’t participating,”
Still, she notes, the arrest of Shaka – who didn’t respond for requests for comment on this article – suggests that government is not untroubled by the rapid rise of its social media critics.
TVO, for his part, appears up to the challenge. The citizen Facebooker's identity remains a source of wide speculation, with rumors circulating about high-level journalists, government officials, and dissidents. Some continue to suspect Shaka, who runs another pseudonymous Facebook page critical of the government under the name Maverick Blutaski.
Given TVO's vast geographical base of information, many suspect it to be not one but several individuals working together.
Whoever he, she, or they are, three weeks ago, amidst daily missives about opposition rallies and vote-buying, TVO updated their profile photo to a simple block of text set against a neon pink background.
“MY FREE SPEECH IS NOT NEGOTIABLE,” it reads.
Ryan Lenora Brown’s reporting in Uganda was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.