For some years now, Tom Voltaire Okwalinga (also known as TVO) has been posting politically-charged information on his Facebook wall. His claim to know almost everything happening within the ruling establishment circles has earned him a lot of followers on social media.
Some time back, it was revealed that the Uganda government had asked Facebook to close TVO’s account. Facebook turned down the request, leaving security officers to embark on what has turned out to be a hard and long hunt for TVO.
On Monday, a man named Robert Shaka was arrested and police claim he is the TVO they have been looking for. But the TVO of Facebook is still alive and kicking, putting the police on a potentially-embarrassing wild goose chase.
“I can’t believe what I have just watched on NTV news – wowee!!”
That is what TVO posted on his Facebook wall on Sunday evening, a few minutes after the TV station reported that one Robert Shaka was blaming Uganda police for harassing him, having mistaken him for TVO. Within three hours, TVO had posted a video clip of the NTV news story that had by Tuesday afternoon received 3,555 views, 64 comments and 119 likes.
TVO continued giving updates on Shaka, who appears on Facebook as Maverick Blutaski, with such posts as: “Uganda police misfire in their hunt for TVO, and instead resort to harassing a wrong man, Robert Shaka for three months.”
“Robert Shaka…has now been arrested…his arrest is now confirmed.”
Despite TVO’s claim, police spokesman Fred Enanga said he had no idea someone believed to be TVO was under arrest.
“I can’t confirm his arrest,” Enanga said on Monday. He repeated the same statement yesterday.
However, TVO went ahead yesterday to reveal that Kampala lawyer Nicholas Opio was representing Shaka, who was indeed in police custody. When asked to comment on TVO’s claim, Opio confirmed it, saying he was working to secure Shaka’s release.
“He was waylaid at 6am on Monday on his way to work and was being detained at SIU, Kireka. He spent the night there and they are accusing him of sectarianism and computer misuse by making posts that cause/promote hatred of the person of the president, his wife, Gen Kayihura and one Mbabazi,” Opio said.
WHO IS TVO
On his (assuming it’s a man) Facebook wall, the cover photo is of President Museveni in a military garb surrounded with words: “Just say no [to President Museveni’s] government”. And the profile picture is a placard with: “Say no to corruption”.
On June 1, 2015, TVO posted: “I am called Tom Voltaire Okwalinga, (TVO), and I put my life in line of fire in order to inform fellow citizens on all issues that are of relevance to good governance and human rights…As I always say, anyone who is nursing plans of intimidating me, or even bribing me, should find another hobby.”
According to Timothy Kalyegira, a journalist, TVO will always be a state target if he has access to secret information because “secret information is the life of a government.”
Kalyegira says TVO is a wanted man because State House wants to find out who inside it is leaking certain information to him.
“You saw how the US reacted when the NSA officer Edward Snowden leaked [sensitive information]. Intelligence works by secrecy; when secrecy is breached, it can no longer work,” said Kalyegira, editor of online magazine Kampala Express.
Tamale Mirundi, President Museveni’s controversial press secretary, who is a Facebook friend of Shaka’s (Maverick Blutaski), said such actors should face the law. “I don’t know those people (TVO). But whether he is my son or Brigadier Muhoozi and they have crossed the line, they have to be surrendered to the authorities to face the law,” Mirundi said on Monday.
Wafula Oguttu, leader of opposition in parliament, said government is just panicking and fighting a losing battle. Besides being “100 per cent” sure that Shaka is not the real TVO, Oguttu argued that there is no need to hunt him down.
“I actually don’t think TVO is an individual. He may have started as an individual but now it has become a medium where everybody is a reporter. TVO can’t be everywhere but you realize that he gets correct information from many places. So, even if they arrested and jailed or killed someone, another TVO will come up,” Oguttu said.
Oguttu related this to his journalism days in the 1980s when, in fear of government oppression, journalists used to write about state excesses using pseudo names. Kalyegira concurred, noting that when a government narrows the media and political space, the tendency is for some political and media activists to go underground.
“Because of the internet, it is much easier to publish such banned or censored information anonymously. Tom Okwalinga is such a person,” Kalyegira said.
Oguttu advised that instead of harassing innocent people, the government should stop being corrupt and there will be no need for TVOs to emerge.
Following the arrest of Shaka, some TVO followers have pointed out that the government’s security apparatus are promoting TVO rather than curtail him. At 3:22pm on June 5, TVO posted thanking his followers who had reached 16,000. By Tuesday afternoon (June 9), this number had dramatically jumped to 17,313.
On Monday evening, TVO accused one Justus Amanya of publishing that Robert Shaka was the TVO, leading to his arrest.
But Amanya, another activist, responded quickly with a 459-word letter titled, “TVO is simply a messenger of falsehoods.” “Under which capacity or for what personal gain do I get in having my fellow Ugandan arrested by a regime I oppose? His associates updating the page could instead engage in rescuing him than dragging wrong people into their arena,” Amanya wrote.