With 1.7 million followers on Twitter and 700,000 on Facebook, President Yoweri Museveni often uses his social media accounts to make pronouncements on key government decisions, disseminate information on his activities and key policy issues. Yet, the account is considered private according to a recent High Court ruling.
According to the court, the president legally blocked a Ugandan Harvard University student Hillary Innocent Taylor Seguya @HillaryTaylorVI, from following him on twitter because Museveni’s Twitter account @KagutaMuseveni is personal and he enjoys a right on who to block or unblock, as well as who to follow or unfollow.
The decision by Justice Andrew Bashaija followed a suit in which Seguya argued that by blocking him on Twitter, the president infringed on his right of access to information and freedom of speech. He said that he was unable to see or respond to tweets on the president’s official handle.
Seguya has been unable to follow, tag, like or retweet any content from the presidents handle, as well as personal handles of other government officials, among them Ofwono Opondo (@OfwonoOpondo), the government spokesperson and Asan Kasingye (@AKasingye), the Police Forces Chief Political Commissar since July 2019.
But Justice Bashaija advised Seguya to instead follow @PoliceUg to get information from the Uganda Police Force, @UgandaMediaCent for the Media Centre which is headed by Ofwono Opondo and @StateHouseUg for information from the State House which could also cover the Presidency.
Media scholars and experts, however, say that the privacy of an individual overlaps with their public life. They add that a person’s social media account, even with his name, cannot be private especially if they are holding public office.
William Tayebwa, the head of the Makerere University Department of Journalism and Communication says that a government official like the President should have an official or public account for official business and a personal account for private issues. He says the problem is that by default, private accounts of public figures become one and the same.
Tayebwa argues that any public servant at that level of leadership ceases to own what ordinary people call private accounts and adds that unless the account is encrypted and the information is not available to the general public then it can be considered private.
Juliet Nanfuka, a digital media expert with Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA-Uganda) says that if someone is using their account, the onus is on the person to block their followers, especially if they are being attacked online. However, she adds, this also depends on the nature of the content being raised.
She says that the cause of the action sometimes, is a matter that should be questioned, whether it was an attack on the person, or if simply the person was avoiding public scrutiny. In President Museveni’s case, Nanfuka says the challenge comes with the access to information law which states that every citizen should be able to access information.
Before he was blocked, Seguya, a student of International Relations had tweeted in praised of Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo whom he wished to have exchanged for Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.
“I wish we could exchange you for our Ugandan president. He’s a dictator – Yoweri Museveni – he has been in power for 33 years and we are telling him enough is enough,” Seguya said.
Nanfuka says that the account @KagutaMuseveni which gives public information to Ugandans should be accessed, and in this regard blocking a person is contravening Ugandan laws which guarantee access to information. Nanfuka says leaders online cannot block people, because “you cannot block everyone who says something contrary.”
Dr Fred Kakooza, a specialist in ICT, New media and Development communication and lecturer at Makerere University’s Department of Journalism says that the ideal would be to have a public account and a private account, for instance having an account named President of Uganda and one as Yoweri K Museveni.
According to Kakooza, having public profiles as office names like Office of the President, or President of Uganda would be strictly public and require that one is subjected to public scrutiny. He, however, says that the moment that a profile is in the name of an individual, yet they communicate official messages, then they lose the right to privacy.
Dr George Lugalambi, another Media Specialist, says that the President has an official persona and people will respond to the President on official matters of the state, a fact he cannot run away from.
“He has tweeted about his cows at Rwakitura, he is hosting his family on a Christmas party, he is hosting that video of his exercise, those are not matters of the State, so he should post those in his account like Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, but if he is posting on national or matters of state, there should be an account for that,” Lugalambi said.
Professor Frederic Jjuuko, the Dean of Law school at the Uganda Martyrs University says that although a private person in a leadership position has a right to block someone who follows them, the situation is different if the person is using the account for the office they occupy.
“If their presence there is in a private capacity, there is a difference between the office and the person and if they have this account and it is dedicated to private life that ought to be respected,” Jjuuko said. He, however, says the conduct of a public figure is a matter of public concern and this is where there could be issues. For instance, he says, sometimes Museveni posts Public information, but this could still be in a private capacity.
Early this year, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta suspended all his social media accounts following controversy on one of his tweets. He closed his Twitter handle @UKenyatta which had more than three million followers at the time, and suspended his verified Facebook account. Prior to this decision, he had been branded the Tweeting president, due to his presence and engagement on the microblogging platforms.
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, another social media enthusiast uses his social media account to communicate government decisions. His account @PaulKagame has 1.9 million followers. He recently advised South Africa’s Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni who had threatened to quit using Twitter over abuse, to hang on the platform. Through a tweet, Kagame stated that twitter wasn’t the problem.
“It is not Twitter the problem it is people… When you’re fine you are fine…Just get on with your life the way you want and find it fit. Go back to tweeting you will be fine!! 🙂 Mbowemi followed the advice. He is still tweeting and has 795,000 followers.
Three years ago, the Federal Court in New York City held that President Donald Trump, the president of the United States of America was violating the U.S. Constitution by preventing certain Americans from viewing his tweets on @realDonaldTrump.
According to the judges, the social media platform is a designated public forum from which Trump cannot exclude individual plaintiffs. They rejected an argument by the Justice Department that the president had a right to block Twitter followers because of his associational freedoms and stated that because President Trump controls access to his handle and uses it for official government purposes, it is a public forum and cannot block people solely based on their viewpoints.
Although there is a twitter handle for the President of United States of America @POTUS that has been used by many Presidents, President Trump uses his account, which also seems to be more popular, amongst Twitter users. Trump has more than 82 million followers on Twitter and his tweets are widely shared often generating praise and criticism from within and outside the United States of America.