Three institutions at the front lines of defending human rights in Uganda have written to the country’s health minister, Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, urging the government to lift restrictions on access to information — in particular, Uganda’s Social Media Tax — during the national Covid-19 lock-down.
By Kikonyogo Kivumbi
In a letter dated April 01, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), the National Council for Disability and the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) urged the Ugandan government to “temporarily lifting the existing Over The Top (OTT) tax in order to facilitate access to and sharing of information.”
OTT, also referred to as the Social Media Tax, requires users to pay a tax of 200 Ugandan shillings (US$0.05) per day to access online communication services, including those of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, YouTube, Skype and Yahoo Messenger.
These taxable “over-the-top (OTT)” services include any “transmission or receipt of voice or messages over the internet, including access to virtual private networks,” in the words of telecom network MTN Uganda. The Ugandan Parliament voted for that tax in the Excise Duty (Amendment) Bill of 2018.
The Social Media Tax has proven to be both controversial and hard to enforce, since increasing numbers of Ugandans now gain access to social media through offshore virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow them to avoid the tax. Street demonstrations that criticize the government for using the tax to impede their freedom of expression have led to arrests and prosecutions.
In the letter copied to the Uganda Communications Commission, Uganda Broadcasters Association and the Media Council of Uganda, human rights defenders noted that media, including through online platforms, play an essential role in sharing information.
The letter adds:
In this time of unprecedented uncertainty, in which important behavioural changes are required by all of us to contain the outbreak, effective and accurate communication reaching all is quintessential to the success of the preventative measures put in place by the Government of Uganda.
The human rights defenders’ letter is reproduced verbatim below:
To: Hon. Dr. Janet Ruth Acheng
Minister of Health
Cc: Uganda Communications Commission
Uganda Broadcasters Association
Uganda Media Council
1 April 2020
Ref: Human Rights and Communication in the context of Uganda’s response to COVID-19
The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), the National Council for Disability (NCD) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Uganda extend their compliments to you.
With regard to the subject matter, we acknowledge the crucial role of communication to effectively contain and respond to the COVID-19 outbreak in Uganda.
We commend efforts by Uganda, under the important leadership by your Ministry, to convey public messaging via radio, television and text messages, as well as having sign language interpreters on TV for key announcements.
Media, including through online platforms, plays an essential role in sharing information, and has a responsibility to do so in an objective, factual and timely manner. In this time of unprecedented uncertainty, in which important behavioural changes are required by all of us to contain the outbreak, effective and accurate communication reaching all is quintessential to the success of the preventative measures put in place by the Government of Uganda.
Ensuring information is hence a determining factor in the Government’s efforts to uphold and ensure the human right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as enshrined in the Constitution of Uganda, as well as in regional and international human rights instruments.
Today more than ever, the Ministry of Health, supported by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), and those in its sphere of operation and influence, have a key role in ensuring access to information, including by disseminating accurate information about the nature of the COVID19 threats and the means to protect oneself, one’s family, and one’s community, and by addressing misinformation on media and social platforms that could contribute to human rights violations and abuses.
In this regard, we welcome the UCC’s Advisory on “circulation of fake information” regarding COVID-19 issued on 22 March 2020, and press releases provided by the Ministry of Health on efforts undertaken to follow up on specific cases.
In these exceptional circumstances, we would like to seize this opportunity to encourage all relevant stakeholders to consider ensuring that:
- All efforts continue to be made to ensure that information is made accessible to all in Uganda, and additional efforts are made to reach those that currently may have limited access to such information, taking into account their specific situation and needs. These groups include persons with disabilities (PWDs), persons living in informal settlements and in remote locations, among others. Recommended actions include that information be made available in as many local languages as possible and disseminated widely through local radios and televisions in plain language. Information needs to be made available in accessible formats for people with low literacy levels and for PWDs.
- Tailored messages to be prepared to address specific groups, including children, the youth and medical personnel. Age-appropriate information will help children and young people to understand the situation and help them protect themselves and their community. Local health personnel, including doctors, nurses, clinical officers and village health teams (VHTs) should also be provided with specific information to strengthen their understanding of COVID-19 and of how to handle suspected cases.
Risk communication to counter false information, as well as stigma and discrimination, including against persons from high-risk countries and persons who are or who may have been infected, is developed and widely disseminated. Messaging and sensitization on the preventative measures should include messages on non-discrimination and respect for the right to privacy.
Messages are developed to discourage the general public from sharing, in particular on social media platforms, personal information of those individuals who are deemed suspected COVID-19 cases, including those from high-risk countries or those who have returned from abroad, and to share that information only with relevant authorities. The level of detail of information shared regarding these individuals, including names, location of residence, contacts and photos, carries a high risk of exposing them to considerable danger of discrimination, stigma or even physical attacks.
Radio infrastructures, including local transmitters, should be reinforced, especially at local level, and access to internet and social media should be widened, including by temporarily lifting the existing Over The Top (OTT) tax, in order to facilitate access to and sharing of information at a time when many will rely on social media to receive information in their homes.
Media freedom must be preserved at all times, and journalists must be enabled and allowed to carry out their important role, in line with professional journalistic standards and code of ethics, including by allowing them wider freedom of movement in the exercise of their duty.
Any restrictions that may be imposed on freedom of expression, either online or offline, should be in accordance with established domestic and international law, and be necessary and proportional to the objective of the restriction.
In line with our respective mandates, we remain committed to supporting the Government of Uganda to promote and protect human rights in every sector and circumstance.
We remain available to provide support and assistance in your important efforts to effectively respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Please accept the assurances of our highest consideration.