By Daniel Mwesigwa |
Uganda has become the latest East African country to threaten access to information and free speech online by putting in place measures that require the registration of online content providers. In a notice issued earlier this month, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) called for online publishers, news platforms, radio and television operators to “apply and obtain authorization” for provision of services.
Without specifying the requirements necessary for application, the UCC indicates that within a month of issuance of the notice, measures will be enforced against non-compliant service providers and this “may entail directing Internet Service Providers (ISP) to block access to such websites and/or streams.”
The UCC is mandated under Section 5 of the Uganda Communications Act 2013 (UCC Act) to monitor, inspect, license, supervise, control and regulate all communications services. This mandate extends to audio, visual or data content production or dissemination through traditional broadcast media as well as internet based platforms.
According to the notice, registration of the various operators which the UCC classifies as “online data communication and broadcast content providers”, is within the regulator’s mandate to set standards and enforce compliance relating to content.
Over the years, UCC’s regulatory role has come under criticism over its lack of independence. Its establishing Act gives powers to the minister in charge of ICT to appoint the commission’s executive director and board members and to approve its budgets. In April 2017, the parliament of Uganda passed the Uganda Communications (Amendment) Bill (2016) which further gave the minister the power to single handedly make regulations for the sector without parliamentary oversight.
More recently, UCC instructed telecommunications service providers to enforce two social media shutdowns during the presidential elections in 2016, and in September 2017 barred live broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings on the Presidential age limit amendment bill. National security and public safety have been cited as the grounds for the various directives.
There are an estimated 24 million mobile subscriptions and 18.1 million internet users in Uganda, reflecting an internet penetration rate of 48%. The country has licensed over 40 TV and 300 FM radio stations, many of which maintain online presences through live streaming on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
Meanwhile, licensed print operators maintain online portals whilst there is a growing number of independent online news publishers and bloggers. Growing media convergence has seen traditional media maintain a dominance online as was witnessed during the Uganda Presidential debate in 2016, where the television stations NTV and NBS TV influenced narrative according to a Twitter sentiment analysis.
However, without regulations in place to guide the proposed registration, it remains to be seen what obligations will be put forth for online content providers and the resultant impact that the registration will have on the country’s growing media landscape as well as the rights of users. Nonetheless, the move is a regressive development for digital rights in the country. It reflects a growing trend in neighbouring countries that are seeking to regulate online content through requirements for registration of users and service providers as well as accreditation to practice journalism.
In 2017, Tanzania published draft regulations on Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content). The proposed regulations confer powers upon the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) to regulate online content, including through registration of users and platforms, and taking action against non-compliance with the obligations, such as ordering the removal of “prohibited content.”
A more targeted avenue has been used in Burundi, through the Press Law of 2015 which calls for all media practitioners to be accredited, including those operational purely in the online domain. A similar stance exists in Rwanda where even social media posts are theoretically regulated by the country’s National Communication Council (CNC).
The move by Uganda, proposed measures in Tanzania and existing practices in Burundi and Rwanda restrict the number of content providers online and thus inhibit the diversity and wider availability of information online. Furthermore, there is the potential for such practices to engender censorship to legitimate content which might be critical of public officials and bodies.