Preceding the widely discredited Ugandan presidential elections of January 14 2021, the main opposition candidate Mr Robert Kyagulanyi “(popularly known as “Bobi Wine”)” urged his supporters to use their smartphones to record cases of poll fraud and violence. “They fear the camera. Use your camera as much as possible, go live wherever you can, expose, expose, expose,” he said during his New Year’s address.
Opposition groups announced the setting up of a joint election oversight platform and resolved to use technology and joint resources including mobile phones to ensure vote protection. However, in a move to counter efforts to document voting day proceedings, the electoral commission announced a ban on the use of mobile phones for recording purposes or taking photos inside the polling stations. That directive, which was later reviewed after a lot of backlash, was not only intended to expressly prohibit measures that would allow for transparency during the voting process, but also restrict citizens from exercising their right to record.
Despite the headwinds, there was an unprecedented use of video by Ugandans as a tool for pushing back against electoral malpractice and to expose human rights violations before, during and after the election period.
Run-up to the election
Human rights groups called out the Ugandan government over incidences of gross human rights violations that included harassment of opposition leaders, suppression of civil society actors and censorship of the media. A curated video report by the Guardian summarized the deteriorating pre-election human rights situation in the country in which security forces were seen to be heavy-handed against the opposition supporters. So shocking was their impunity that at one moment they fired at a woman whom they spotted filming their activity from a window in a storey building.
In addition, there were concerted efforts by the opposition to livestream events on their campaign trail. VICE NEWS reported that for over one year as the election timeline was on countdown, Ashraf Kasirye, a journalist with Ghetto Media – a series of social media pages affiliated with Mr Wine, was streaming for 20 hours a day on behalf of Mr Wine and Ghetto Media. Using phones donated from Ugandans abroad, Kasirye would carry two power banks and multiple SIM cards. Locals would send phone credit so he could buy data, as he went through around 21 gigabytes a day. Wine also gave Ghetto Media phones, cameras, and other equipment. Kasirye saw his role as protecting Wine: “We make sure the cameras are rolling for his safety.”
Ghetto Media’s Ashraf Kasirye livestreaming on the opposition’s campaign trail. Photo source here.
It is against that backdrop that Google declined a request by the Kampala regime to shut down 14 YouTube channels for allegedly fanning the flames of violence. Consequently, the crackdown on livestreaming and online dissent by the state escalated to other brutal forms that involved sustained attacks on journalists covering opposition rallies and indefinite banning of social media. Even worse, Kasirye was waylaid and shot on the head during one of the opposition campaign events and left in critical condition. Most recently, when we reached out to him, he was still recuperating.
Below is a video excerpt showing retaliation against Ashraf Kasirye by law enforcement agents (source here).
TRIGGER WARNING: Police violence
After the election
A few days after the voting day and after the internet was partially restored, dozens of videos showing stuffing of pre-ticked ballot papers started to emerge on social media, some of which were published by a leading local daily in the country. Acknowledging the circulation of the video recordings on social media, the Electoral Commission said that it considered the allegations seriously and that it would investigate the veracity of the recordings.
In a series of events following the declaration of Yoweri Museveni as the winner of the vote, Mr. Wine indicated that he had irrefutable video evidence demonstrating that the voting process was fraudulent and that he would present it to the world once the internet was restored in the country. He eventually lodged a petition at Uganda’s Supreme court seeking nullification of the presidential election but withdrew it a few days later alleging bias by the judges of the court. Unconfirmed reports from sources privy to the petition hinted that at least 10 of the 26 listed grounds were backed with video evidence.
The Ugandan case recenters the conversation on the growing use of video in documenting evidence of human rights abuse, electoral fraud and election-related state violence in Africa and the rest of the world. Following the contested presidential election in Nigeria in 2019, the then Presidential Election Petition Tribunal admitted video evidence of alleged electoral irregularities presented by the main opposition party. Similarly, in the lead up to the US election there were widespread concerns about voter intimidation by law enforcement in which WITNESS encouraged communities to use video to document those incidences. During the post election period in Sri Lanka in 2019, multiple videos on social media showed rising attacks against Tamils and Muslims in the country.
How to film safely and effectively
At WITNESS, we support activists and communities in their efforts at using video to document and end human rights abuses. As we applaud the people, communities, activists in Uganda who organized around the power of video to document violations during the elections, we want to end by sharing a selection of free resources from our Library that can be useful to those working for justice and accountability in Africa – feel free to spread the word!
Filming Police Brutality: This tipsheet offers basic practices on filming police brutality especially during protests and sharing the footage. Supplement that guidance by watching our masterclass on how to film trustworthy evidence of police abuse.
Saving and Downloading Livestreams: Livestreams can help mobilize, expose and correct narratives in real time. However, they could also be subjected to removal by social media platforms and other retaliatory tactics by perpetrators. When livestreaming, it is important take certain precautions to not put anyone in danger (this video was created specifically for the legal context in the US but there’s still good points to consider on how to livestream) and also to download and save livestreams to preserve potential evidence of abuse (guidance here).
Archiving: You can preserve footage that you filmed and which can be used to pursue justice in the future even long after a crime has been committed. Check out our step-by-step material on archiving.
Verification: Follow these tips that will help you verify images and videos that you see online.