January 14, 2021
The Kenyan based The Elephant, is one of the premier online sources of news analysis in the East African region with a fast-growing readership across the African continent and beyond.
By mid December 2020, The Elephant started to receive complains from users in Uganda, not being able to access their site. With the Ugandan presidential election coming up in January 2021, Qurium suspected that the blocking could be intentional, as a strategy to silence critical voices.
“Since the founding of the Elephant we’ve committed ourselves to quality Pan African opinion, analysis and investigations. Tyranny thrives in the dark and now more than ever. The media, increasingly online media, is at the cutting edge of democracy. There’s a great struggle underway across the world between authoritarian regimes and the media. It’s our collective duty to stay the course as men with power work to push us back into darkness and silence”, says John Githongo, Publisher, the Elephant.
Blocked by three providers
Starting the 12-13 of December 2020, Qurium detected a sudden traffic drop from several Internet providers in Uganda, Liquid Telecom, Africell and Airtel.
In the case of Africell (Orange) we could narrow down the blocking to the 12-13th of December although we also received a bit of traffic the 19th of December 2020 probably during a blocking reconfiguration.
No sign of block pages
Many Ugandan readers of the Elephant experienced problems when connecting to the website. The readers received various types of “Connection Resets” error messages, indicating that the website was unreachable.
None of the three providers provide a so called “block page” to the reader, explaining why the site is blocked and how to appeal. Common reasons for Internet blocking is to protect children from obscene content, prevent access to copyright-infringing material, or to protect national security. The motive for blocking The Elephant remains unclear.
Confirming the blocking
To confirm that the Elephant’s website was intentionally blocked by these three providers, and that the issues reported were not a result of infrastructure problems, Qurium verified that:
- Other websites on the same IP address could be reached
- Moving the website to another network did not improve the situation
- Traffic captures from inside and outside the country showed signs of blocking by means of Deep Packet Inspection.
Traffic captures from Africell (Orange) showed signs of SSL packet inspection. Once the reader sends the name of the website during the SSL negotiation (Hello Client), reset (RST, ACK) packets are injected to tear down the connection.
Speaking silence from the providers
The Elephant team has reached out to the three Ugandan providers Liquid Telecom (Infocom), Africell (Orange) and Airtel Uganda (Zain) to request information on why their site is blocked. During the 7 days response time given, only Liquid Telecom has responded. The CEO of Liquid Telecom answered promptly “Kindly refer this matter to the Uganda Communications Commission for guidance. ” We interpret his words that Liquid Telecom has been instructed by the UCC to block the Elephant. The Elephant has tried to reach UCC to receive a formal answer, but they have not yet responded.
To circumvent the blocking, Qurium has deployed a Bifrost mirror to ensure that The Elephant’s readers in Uganda can access the site.