How the Covid-19 Fight Has Hurt Digital Rights in East Africa

By Paul Kimumwe |

The fight against the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda has dealt a blow to the promotion and preservation of human rights in the region. The outbreak of Covid-19 could not have come at a worse time, as the countries were preparing for their respective general elections (October 2020 for Tanzania, January 2021 for  Uganda, and a potential referendum in 2021 and the August 2022 elections in Kenya).

Even before confirmation of Covid-19 cases in the region, the three East African countries had instituted Covid-19 mitigation measures, including the adoption of statutory instruments which quickly suspended constitutional guarantees without reasonable justification or meaningful stakeholder consultation. The measures were accompanied with a problematic onslaught on the media, the political opposition and ordinary citizens, which undermined the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and the right to access a variety of news and information, which was critical to informed decision-making particularly during electoral processes.

On March 18, 2020, Uganda instituted its first set of measures that included the closure of schools and a ban on all political, religious, and social gatherings. A week after the March 22, 2020 confirmation of the first case in the country, the Ministry of Health issued the Public Health (Control of Covid-19) (No. 2) Rules, 2020 that introduced further restrictions including a dusk-to-dawn curfew, the closure of institutions of learning and places of worship, the suspension of public gatherings, a ban on public transport and the closure of the country’s borders and the international airport to passenger traffic.

In Kenya, the government introduced several measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 that included the suspension of public gatherings and other social distancing requirements; limitation of travel into and outside the country; imposition of a dusk-to-dawn curfew under the Public Order Act, 2003; as well as inter-county travel bans between the capital, Nairobi, and three other high-risk counties of Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale.

A day after the government confirmed its first coronavirus case, Tanzania introduced a series of measures that included the closure of schools and the suspension of sports events on March 17, 2020. Additional directives, including quarantining travelers from countries with confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the travelers’ own cost, were announced by President Pombe Magufuli.

While many of the restrictions such as the closure of international borders, schools and churches and prohibitions on public gatherings have since been relaxed, the long-term impact of these and other restrictions persist.

In this brief, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) researched Covid-19 related censorship and surveillance practices and related regulatory responses in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda that affected people’s’ digital rights, including the right to freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy. It shows that the different measures adopted by the three countries, including enactment and enforcement of repressive laws on misinformation/fake news, as well as intimidation, arrests, detentions, and suspension of media operations, have led to an erosion of civil liberties online and offline.

The brief recommends the amendment of all the Covid-19 legislation that restricts freedoms to bring it into conformity with international standards on the right to privacy, data collection and processing as well as freedom of expression and access to information. Further, it urges governments to improve the affordability of the internet by more citizens, ensure the respect of citizens’ rights; and be transparent, and accountable in the conduct of Covid-19 related data collection and surveillance.

Call for Participation: Post-Graduate Workshop on Digital Data in East Africa and Beyond

Apply Now |

We would like to invite applications for a day-long virtual Post-Graduate Workshop on Digital Data in East Africa and Beyond scheduled to take place on February 25, 2021. It will be run by the Developing Data project, a network including Strathmore University’s Centre of Intellectual Property & Information Technology (CIPIT), Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), and the University of Edinburgh’s Centre of African Studies (CAS). The project looks at a range of both financial and political uses of data in East Africa and across the rest of the African continent. For more information please visit:

Applicants will be required to submit a short summary (approximately 1,000 words) of a work in progress, for example, an article, dissertation chapter, or grant proposal. The workshop will then involve each participant giving a short presentation on their work. The students will then receive feedback on their presentations from academic staff involved in the network. There will also be opportunities for students to discuss methods, approaches, and findings among themselves. This workshop would represent a good opportunity to meet people working on similar subject areas, something that could facilitate future knowledge exchange and collaborations.

Please consider applying if:

  • You are a masters or PhD student at either an East African university or the University of Edinburgh.
  • You have a work in progress that is related to the themes covered by the Developing Data project.

How to apply: Applicants are required to submit a summary (approximately 1,000 words) on the topic that they wish to present. Please email [email protected] if you would like to apply or if you have questions about the event.

The deadline for applications is Monday, February 15 at 12pm EAT.

Register for The Data Privacy Summit 2021

Online Event |

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) alongside Article 19, Facebook, FGI Benin are pleased to host the Data Privacy Summit 2021 (#DataPrivacySummit21) in commemoration of Data Privacy Day.

Data Privacy Day was launched by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 26th April 2006, to be celebrated each year on 28th January; the anniversary of the signing of Convention 108 – the first legally binding international treaty on privacy and data protection. Since then, this day has come to represent international efforts to empower individuals and businesses to respect privacy, safeguard data and build trust.

Data Privacy Summit 2021, thus aims to raise awareness on contemporary privacy and data protection issues in Africa and the Middle East, as well as to inspire individuals, policymakers, organisations to take action and adopt best practices that protect privacy while promoting innovation in a manner that mitigates risks in the increasing use of digital technologies.

To see the lineup of sessions and speakers, register here.

CIPESA Endorses GSMA Principles to Drive Digital Inclusion of Persons With Disabilities

By CIPESA Writer |

Today, the GSMA, a group that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, has launched the ‘Principles for Driving the Digital Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities’, which aim to inspire the mobile industry to help close the mobile disability gap.

Announced on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, December 3, 2020, the Principles set out a framework for action, as well as recommended activities to help address the barriers that currently prevent persons with disabilities from accessing and using mobile-enabled products and services. According to research conducted by the GSMA, many persons with disabilities are less likely to own smartphones and use mobile internet than persons without disabilities.

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) is honoured to have endorsed the principles at their launch. The mobile industry plays a critical role in our communities, hence it is of utmost importance that it takes definitive measures to promote inclusion and accessibility of its products and services. In Africa, most mobile operators still have work to do to ensure persons with disabilities are fully included.

“The Principles are practical and comprehensive, and will hopefully gain robust uptake by the industry. They offer civil society and other actors a clear and standardised tool by which to assess the industry’s performance on key inclusion benchmarks,” said CIPESA Executive Director Dr. Wairagala Wakabi.

World Health Organization figures show that around 15% of the world’s population  or one billion people worldwide live with a disability. Yet, only 1 in 10 people has access to the assistive technology they need to live independent lives. The GSMA notes that, by combining multiple assistive technologies in a single device, mobile phones can be cost effective tools to enable greater inclusion and participation for persons with disabilities.

The Principles call for action to address the barriers and requirements of persons with disabilities, drive innovation, place persons with disabilities at the heart of the design process and realise the social and commercial opportunity of reaching this underserved segment of the population. By doing so the mobile industry can make meaningful change and help ensure no one is left behind in an increasingly digital world.

“Removing the barriers faced by persons with disabilities requires informed action from all stakeholders,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA. “It’s time for the mobile industry to take steps to ensure our products and services are accessible, unlocking the power of connectivity so that all people thrive. I’m delighted that Dialog Axiata PLC, Optus, Orange Group, Safaricom PLC, Telefónica Group, Vodacom South Africa, Zain Group and Turkcell have already signed up to our Principles, and I look forward to many more industry participants joining us in this commitment.”

The framework sets out three core principles for the mobile industry to advance the digital inclusion of persons with disabilities: i) Embrace disability inclusion at every level of their organisation; ii) Understand how to reach and better serve persons with disabilities; and iii) Deliver inclusive products and services that meet the varied needs of people with disabilities.

Embrace disability inclusion at every level of the organisation: To drive digital inclusion and reach persons with disabilities with mobile-enabled products and services, it is critical to focus on disability at an organisational level, to ensure disability inclusion is embedded across the organisation, supported by relevant policies and strategies, and spearheaded by senior leadership.

Understand how to reach and better serve persons with disabilities: Actions to drive the digital inclusion of persons with disabilities must be informed by an understanding of the local issues and local contexts, and ensuring persons with disabilities’ voices are heard: “nothing about us, without us”.

Deliver inclusive products and services that meet the diverse requirements of persons with disabilities: Action is required to address the barriers and requirements of persons with disabilities, drive innovation, place persons with disabilities at the heart of the design process and realise the social and commercial opportunity of reaching this underserved segment of the population.

Digital accessibility is recognised as a key priority in various global commitments, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the United Nations (UN) Disability Inclusion Strategy, which seek to ensure that no one is left behind in an increasingly digital world.

The Principles have been endorsed by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), the Mobile & Wireless Forum’s (MWF) Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (Gari), the Global Disability Innovation Hub, the International Disability Alliance (IDA), the International Labour Organization (ILO), Purple Space, CIPESA, and the Valuable 500.

You can learn more about the Principles here. CIPESA encourages mobile operators to sign up, and other actors to endorse the initiative and support the industry in striving to improve the digital inclusion of persons with disabilities.

Registration of Online Publishers and Broadcasters Threatens Free Expression in Uganda

By Edrine Wanyama |

The renewed order by Uganda’s communications regulator for online publishers and broadcasters to apply for licences before they operate presents a grave threat to freedom of expression and citizens’ right of access  to information.

Earlier this month, the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) set October 5, 2020 as the deadline for “persons currently offering or planning to commence the provision of online data communication and broadcasting services” to obtain authorisation for providing such services to the public.  The latest directive comes two years after the initial notice of March 6, 2018, which instituted the requirement to seek authorisation from the regulator for the provision of these services. The March 2018 notice was widely criticised as an attempt to gag free expression online. Nonetheless, due to the fear of reprisal, an undisclosed number of providers of data communications services are said to have applied and acquired authorisation by early 2019.

The  latest notice specifically states that authorisation is required for “blogs, online televisions, online radios, online newspapers, audio over IP (AoIP), Internet Protocol TV (IPTV), Video on Demand (VoD), Digital Audio radios and televisions, internet/web radio and internet/web television.”

The notice comes at a time when digital communications are  taking centre stage in the lead-up to presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in February 2021. The country’s electoral body has decreed that, due to social distancing required by Covid-19 standard operating procedures, no physical campaigns will take place so as to ensure a healthy and safe environment for all stakeholders during the electoral process. Further, parliament passed the Political Parties and Organisations (Conduct of Meetings and Elections) Regulations 2020, which are aimed at safeguarding public health and safety of political party activities in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and provide for holding of political meetings including elections through virtual means.

Online platforms play a critical role in shaping the electoral process by bridging the gap between public office contenders and the electorate and promoting transparency and accountability in Uganda. The requirement for application, registration and authorisation threatens access to information, free speech and the rights to association and assembly. Such limitations will not only promote self censorship but also undermine individual participation in electoral processes.

The UCC has a long history of curtailing press and citizens’ rights – both during and outside of election periods – and is widely considered nondependent. In early February 2019, the Commission threatened to shut down the website of the Daily Monitor – an independent media house – for “publishing news without authorisation” in purported contravention of   the March 6, 2018 public notice. Besides the alleged non-compliance with the requirement to register for a licence to publish online, UCC also accused the newspaper of publishing defamatory news against the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga.

In 2006, the Daily Monitor and its sister radio station – KFM  were blocked from publishing electoral results, while the website of Radio Katwe that was highly critical of the government was also blocked. Five years later in 2011, the UCC ordered internet service providers to block the transmission of SMS messages that contained words related to  the Arab Spring pro-democracy movement or any other words the regulator thought might incite electoral violence. During the most recent elections period in 2016, social media platforms were blocked during the general elections and the inauguration of the incumbent president over “national security” reasons.

Besides setting the deadline for registration of online communications service providers, the regulator has also issued threats to prosecute those who spread false and misleading information.

Meanwhile, in 2018, the government introduced an Over the Top (OTT) tax which requires users of social media to pay UGX 200 (USD 0.05) before accessing platforms. The tax significantly cut the internet penetration rate in the country.

The actions by the UCC mirror those of the regulator in neighbouring Tanzania. In July 2020, Tanzania further entrenched digital rights repression amidst a looming election by issuing regulations that require licencing and taxation of bloggers, online discussion forums, radio and television webcasters, and repress online speech, privacy and access to information.

With the current low levels of access to  broadcast media and ICT, Uganda  needs to  encourage rather than limit the use of these technologies. Should  UCC’s notice be effected, it will frustrate efforts to contain Covid-19 since a lot of the information on the pandemic is provided through online platforms. Moreover, the notice will gag online freedoms and shrink the space within which democratic rights are exercised.