Less than five months before elections, the Ugandan government has banned political rallies and is seeking to control online communications — a move that could muzzle both political opposition and vulnerable populations such as the LGBTQ communities whose narratives are unacceptable to mainstream Ugandan media.
By Kikonyogo Kivumbi
The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the nation’s regulator of broadcasting and online communications, has been dragged to court over its new requirement that all online media must be registered by Oct. 5.
The new policy would take effect less than five months before the general presidential and parliamentary elections planned for January-February 2021.
The new regulation, announced Sept. 7, was decried human rights defenders, including Amnesty International Uganda.
“The requirement for people to seek authorisation before posting information online is retrogressive and a blatant violation of the right to freedom of expression and access to information,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa.
Amnesty International added:
“With restrictions on public gatherings already in place, the Ugandan authorities are shutting off a vital channel for people to express their political opinions and share critical information about COVID-19.
“Freedom of expression does not need a license.”
Lawyer Ivan BwoweIn filed a lawsuit challenging the new policy with the Civil Division of the High Court in Kampala. Arguing that the directive is unconstitutional, he has asked court to reverse it.
In the suit, Bwowe argues that all social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, among others, have independent community guidelines and users should not seek authorisation from UCC to use these platforms.
As local media have reported, the lawyer wants the High Court to declare that the directive by UCC to require all online media to register for authorisation to operate is illegal and should be revoked.
“The applicant seeks a declaration that the public notice by UCC for providers of online data communication and broadcasting services to obtain authorization dated September 7, 2020 is illegal, contravenes the Constitution and is an abuse of the law,” court documents say.
UCC said the entities targeted by the notice include blogs, online television, online radio, online newspapers, audio over IP (AoIP), Internet Protocol TV (IGP TV), Video on Demand (VoD), digital audio radios and televisions, Internet/web radio and Internet/web television.
“All persons engaged in the provision of the above services are accordingly advised to regularise their operations by obtaining the necessary authorisation from UCC by 5th of October 2020,” the UCC states.
UCC was established under section 4 of the Uganda Communications Act 2013 as the regulator in the development of a modern communications sector that includes telecommunications, broadcasting, radio communications, postal communications, data communication and infrastructure.
Dr Stella Nyanzi, an LGBTI ally and candidate for the position of Kampala woman member of parliament, spoke out on Facebook against the new UCC rule:
“As a repeat victim of dictator Museveni’s systemic gags, censors, and silencing, I am totally opposed to the new UCC directives which require authorisation of anyone before communicating or broadcasting via the internet. I believe in absolute freedom of the internet.
For those of us who choose to communicate in ways that are highly critical of the dictator and his dictatorship, what are the chances that our applications for authorisation will be granted? For those of us who refuse to praise dictator Museveni’s failed regime on our Facebook pages, in our Facebook Live streams, what are the chances of getting UCC’s authorisation?
“For those of us who claim the internet and social media as our democratic space to freely criticise the authoritarianism, corruption, murders, nepotism, structural failures, militarisation of public institutions, systematic violence against the poor, patriarchy and heterosexist, what is the chance that UCC will authorise is to freely voice our grievances, passionately express our disgust and clearly articulate our dissent?
“I am a believer in internet freedom. I am a believer in freedom of expression. I am a believer in my right to violate dictatorial directives that violate and suppress my constitutional right to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of thought. And so I refuse the directive of the UCC for authorisation.
“And they even dare ask us to pay 100,000/= for the authorisation.”
Uganda’s social media tax
The new UCC policy is in addition to a social media tax that the Ugandan parliament passed in 2018. The tax applies to users of so-called Over The Top (OTT) social media platforms that offering voice and messaging services.
Users are required to pay 200 Ugandan shillings a day (about U.S. $0.05) to access any of the more than 60 such OTT platforms.
This translates into about $1.50 a month and $19 a year in a country where millions live on less than $1 a day.
Kikonyogo Kivumbi, the author of this article, is the executive director of the Uganda Health and Science Press Association.