Skilling Distributed Digital Security Trainers Amidst Growing Digital Rights Attacks

By Neil Blazevic, Andrew Gole and Ashnah Kalemera |

Amidst increased attacks on digital rights activists, journalists, and human rights defenders (HRDs) during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become crucial to grow the capacity of these actors to operate securely. A key concern is that, in many African countries, skills in digital security and safety are lacking among some of the most at-risk groups, yet trainers and support networks are in short supply.

Without adequate digital security capacity, activists and HRDs are not able to meaningfully continue advocacy and engagements around human rights, transparent and accountable governance, during and in the aftermath of Covid-19. Accordingly, through the Level-Up programme, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has provided security support to 16 HRD organisations in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Sudan and Uganda. 

The initiative helped to strengthen the participating entities’ organisational and information systems security capacity, entailed a Training of Trainers (ToT) component – which benefitted 19 individuals – to grow the network of individuals and organisations that offer digital security training and support to journalists, activists, and HRDs, and organisational security assessments. The training and support were delivered through innovative approaches to geographically distributed individuals that could not meet physically due to Covid-19 social distancing and travel restrictions.

Covid-19 and Digital Attacks

In the wake of the global outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and government measures to curb its spread, digital technologies have played a vital role in enhancing disease surveillance, coordinating response mechanisms, and promoting public awareness in Africa. The potential of technology to facilitate containment of the spread of the coronavirus on the continent notwithstanding, concerns over surveillance, violation of rights to privacy, freedom of expression, access to information, and freedom of association and assembly were prevalent. 

Scores of journalists and bloggers in Kenya, Guinea, Uganda, Egypt, among others, were assaulted, detained, and/or prosecuted over their reporting on Covid-19; while some countries such as Kenya, Uganda and South Africa were reported to be conducting cell phone tracking of Covid-19 suspected patients and their contacts. Some others passed regulations and/or invoked laws that criminalised the spreading of false Covid-19 information. Accordingly, there have been fears that in the aftermath of the pandemic, some governments could shift the Covid-19 surveillance apparatus and lessons learnt to undermine digital rights, by surveilling and silencing critics and opponents. 

Meanwhile, hackers and adversaries are capitalising on the increased time spent online and remote working by a large portion of the population by designing new attacks through phishing and hijacking of virtual meetings, among others. Worryingly, despite a large gender disparity in digital access, more women face various forms of online violence than their male counterparts, which continues to undermine their participation online. With Covid-19 resulting in increased incidents of gender-based violence, it is imperative to continue activism and equip activists with digital security and safety skills.

Organisations supported Technologists supported 
Countries: Uganda (8) | Tanzania (4) | South Sudan (2) | Kenya (1) | Ethiopia (1)

Sectors: Sexual minorities (4), Environmental/resource extraction (1) Feminist/women’s rights organisations (3), Information access (1), Journalists/media (1), Human rights, democracy, human rights defenders (6)

Gender: Female (7) |Male (12)

Nationality: Uganda (8) | Ethiopia (3) | South Sudan (1) | Tanzania (4) | Kenya (3)

Assessing Organisational Security

Following an initial training on conducting organisational security assessments, the technologists led assessments to determine the status, challenges, past and potential future threats, and attacks on organisations, as well as the capacity of the organisations. The results of the assessments provided insight into the needs and vulnerabilities of the organisations and served as an opportunity to provide feedback to organisational IT staff on quick fixes and strategies to address some of the challenges or incidents identified. Technology solutions explored included the use of Umbrella for DNS server protection, Automox for patch management, and Microsoft 365 hosted tenants for an organisational management and security suite.

The findings of the assessments indicated a need to bolster capacity, organisational practices, and implementation of security and safety measures related to social media platforms usage by the organisations and staff. Several organisations reported losing access to their brand assets, experiencing hacking, and harassment on social media platforms. To this end, a Social Media Asset Continuity and Security Tool was designed and another  training for technologists conducted focused on 1) Continuity of organisation control of organisational Facebook/Twitter/Whatsapp for Business accounts; 2) Security of individual staff accounts; and 3) Staff ability to deal with harassment and unwanted messaging on platforms. The technologists went on to conduct safety and security on social media training sessions which  benefitted 120 staff of the participating organisations. Other skill-up sessions conducted included on organisational management suites and website security. 

Overall, the programme found that skills and protections (software and hardware) were low and inadequate among many HRD organisations and individuals. Also, there were variable levels of technology integration within the organisations. 

The various gaps identified were rising during the pandemic when many entities could not readily access support networks and training skills due to restrictions on gatherings arising from Covid-19, making the intervention particularly timely. Indeed, the ToT model helped to transfer skills and knowledge among distributed beneficiaries and build support networks in-country.

Call for Proposals: Defending Digital Rights through Policy Advocacy

Call for Proposals |

Since its launch in 2019, the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) has worked to grow the number of individuals and organisations that work to advance digital rights in Africa through rapid response and flexible grants. Furthermore, the fund has provided technical and institutional support to further enhance grantee’s efforts and ensure sustainability.

Inspired by the exceptional work of grantees to date, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has partnered with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) to support select current or previous ADRF grantees to deploy a six-month policy advocacy campaign that furthers the conversation on internet freedom.

Building on existing efforts, recipients will be encouraged to use the Democratic Principles for an Open Internet and/or the Open Internet for Advocacy Playbook as a framework for the advocacy campaigns focused on advancing internet freedom. Recipients will also be encouraged to engage with diverse stakeholder groups in the advocacy projects, including local private sector organizations, and government ministries focused on the digital economy when relevant. 

Grant amounts will range between USD 5,000 and USD 8,000 based on the need and scope of the proposed intervention. 

Applicants MUST be a previous or current ADRF grantee organization.

The deadline for submissions is March 5, 2021. 

The application form can be accessed here.


The grant period will last approximately six months. (Approximate start date: April 2021)


  • Implement a policy advocacy initiative that promotes and protects digital rights at a local, national, or regional level. Advocacy plans must articulate how the project contributes to conversations on advancing internet freedom and outline the potential impact of the project activities. Applicants are strongly encouraged to incorporate the use of the Democratic Principles for an Open Internet and/or the Open Internet for Democracy Advocacy Playbook in proposed advocacy initiatives. Preference will also be given to project plans that demonstrate: A) the desire to implement a policy advocacy campaign that furthers the conversation on the intersection between internet freedom and an inclusive digital economy; and B) the ability and/or interest to engage with diverse stakeholder groups such as local chambers of commerce, business associations, economic think tanks, and/or entrepreneurs.
    • Examples of what projects might entail include:
      • Organizing an advocacy campaign to raise awareness aimed at equipping policymakers with information about the pitfalls of policies inspired by digital authoritarianism. 
      • Conducting multi-stakeholder workshops or roundtable discussions and developing a policy paper that provides key recommendations on how a proposed government action or policy could be improved to advance the development of an online space that promotes digital rights and an inclusive digital economy. 
  • Provide frequent updates to CIPESA on progress made during the advocacy initiative, and seek guidance from CIPESA as needed. 
  • Prepare a short report on the project activities and outcomes from the advocacy initiative, to be shared with CIPE and CIPESA. The report should also include a list of key stakeholders that were involved in any advocacy-related activities, such as multi-stakeholder dialogues. 
  • Participate in a regional dialogue focused on how to advance digital rights across Africa. (Location and dates TBD). 

Selection Criteria 

  • Demonstrated track record from the organization’s work as a current or previous ADRF grantee organization. 
  • Strength, feasibility, and anticipated impact of the proposed project.
  • Ability to travel and present at a regional dialogue which furthers the conversation on internet freedom (location TBD; costs covered for one representative from each selected organization; In-person participation in the event is contingent on health considerations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Selected candidates are expected to participate online if the events are moved online due to COVID-19).

Trends of Digital Data Operations in Elections in Uganda from 2005 – 2020

Daniel Mwesigwa |

While different countries in Africa and beyond have been rocked by shocking revelations of abuse of user data from popular social networks such as Facebook (re: Cambridge Analytica) and massive advertising exchanges such as Google’s DoubleClick during electoral cycles, Uganda seems to have been spared.

This is not entirely surprising given such information is generally scant, however, it does not imply that Uganda does not or has not used data assets during elections in the past cycles. Neither does it show that Uganda will abstain from digital data operations in future elections, including the 2021 polls. In fact, as we argue in the text below, for long, Ugandan politicians and their political parties have exploited complex traditional systems of monitoring and communication to influence electoral outcomes. They are also using new and modern technologies such as mobile telephony to influence elections.

In particular, the state’s influence on the telecommunications industry has given it uninhibited access to large amounts of user data that could be used beyond state-sanctioned surveillance purposes. It is evident, surveillance is a critical aspect of electoral machinery in Uganda—especially that which is controlled by the incumbency. While Uganda is a multi-party democracy with theoretically coindependent arms of the government i.e. executive, legislature and judiciary, the president’s prominence within the country’s day to day administration including within its security dockets cannot be understated.

The state, through the presidency, has firmly established links within the Local Council (LC) system popular in rural and urban areas and is, indeed, an embodiment of “eyes on the street” phenomenon; a vernacular form of surveillance and monitoring—and care—enabled by the local leaders in local communities. However, with the proliferation of mobile telephony, especially in the urban areas, the surveillance machinery builds on the pre-existing (vernacular) infrastructures of surveillance to advanced technology and data enabled surveillance that has been weaponized, mostly by the state, to steer the electoral process and the probable outcomes.

Meanwhile, it is almost impossible to talk about data and politics in Uganda without situating the
conversation within the broader political history of elections in Uganda. Having attained its
independence from the British colonial masters on October 9, 1962, Uganda’s democratic journey has been characterised by violence and suppression. In fact, Uganda has never had a peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another since independence.

To crudely put it, political transition has often been a matter of life or death. Having ascended to power in January 1986 after a five-year guerrilla war campaign imputed to a rigged 1980 presidential poll, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has been at the helm of the country’s leadership since then. Notably, the president has also overseen arguably the longest period of relative peace and stability, coupled with significant post-1986 socio-economic recovery and growth. Despite these achievements, they seem to be steadily eroding because of increasing oppressive legislation, harassment of critics and opposition, and the impunity of those in power.

In this report, see the changing trends of use of data in electoral cycles in Uganda’s modern history. Crucially, the report looks at the period between 2005 and 2020, a period characterised by the highest use of technology and data assets witnessed in Uganda yet.

How Uganda’s Fight Against Covid-19 is Hurting Digital Rights Amidst a Looming Election

By Apolo Kakaire |

The outbreak of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) could not have come at a worse time for Uganda, as the country prepares for what is being referred to as a “scientific election”, where physical rallies are severely restricted, with candidates advised to rely more on the media to canvass support.

Various measures adopted by the government to fight Covid-19 are hampering the enjoyment of various rights and freedoms, and the conduct of the election. The onslaught on the media, the political opposition and social media users has undermined citizens’ right to freely express themselves, and to access to a variety of news and information, which is critical to their informed decision making during this electoral process.

The right of individuals to peaceful assembly and association is linked to their ability to freely express their opinions, and to share and have access to information, both offline and online. However, in response to the pandemic, the government, adopted a series of statutory instruments which quickly suspended constitutional guarantees without reasonable justification or meaningful stakeholder consultation.

Uganda instituted the first set of measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 on March 18, 2020, which 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 international airport to passenger traffic.

Many of these measures, including the opening of the country’s international borders, easing of public transport, and allowing public gatherings of up to 200 people, have since been relaxed. However, in the run-up to the January 14, 2021 elections the state has  continued to invoke the repressive Covid-19-related laws and regulations, as well as those predating the pandemic, as a tool to intimidate, arrest, and detain persons, including critics and political opponents. Consequently, it is increasingly looking like Covid-19 has handed the government a ready excuse to trample citizens’ digital rights and hinder civic engagement and mobilisation by its opponents.

The January elections will pit the incumbent president Yoweri Museveni, who is seeking to extend his 35-year rule, against 10 other candidates.  

Curbing Freedom of Expression

Like many other countries, Uganda was hit by cases of Covid-19 related misinformation, and as early as February 2020, the Ministry of Health had moved to dispel reports that cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed in the country.

In March. the communication regulator, Uganda Communication Commission (UCC), issued a public advisory notice against individuals misusing digital platforms to publish, distribute and forward false, unverified, or misleading stories and reports. The regulator warned that any suspects would be prosecuted for offending the Computer Misuse Act 2011, the Data Protection and Privacy Act 2019 and Section 171 of the Penal Code Act Cap 120.

Also in March 2020, the UCC wrote to three media houses – BBS, NTV, and Spark TV – demanding that they show cause why regulatory sanctions should not be taken against them. The regulator accused the media houses of airing content that had the potential “to confuse, divert and mislead unsuspecting members of the public against complying with the guidelines issued by Government authorities on the coronavirus.”

In April 2020, Adam Obec of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) was arrested on allegations of “spreading false information regarding coronavirus.” According to the police, Obec had circulated information on social media claiming that Uganda had recorded its first Covid-19 death, an action that had purportedly triggered fear and panic in the public and undermined government’s efforts to contain the pandemic.

In the same month, Pastor Augustine Yiga (now deceased) of Revival Church in Kampala was arrested and charged for uttering false information and spreading harmful propaganda in relation to Covid-19. He was later released on a non-cash bail pending trial.

On April 21, the Ugandan military arrested and detained Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, a writer, over an April 6 Facebook post that allegedly urged the public not to comply with  Covid-19 public health guidelines. The post suggested that the president needed to “be serious” about enforcing directives, and that “if the country plunges into the abyss of famine … never blame Coronavirus but yourself and [your] bigoted methods.” The author was charged with committing an act likely to spread a disease, contrary to section 171 of the Penal Code Act and transferred to civil detention on remand. He was later released on a non-cash bail.

Increased Surveillance and Processing of Personal Data

The on-set of Covid-19 led to an increase in incidents of personal data collection and processing as the government traced suspected Covid-19 patients and their contacts. As part of efforts to Covid-19, the government passed various statutory instruments that can be interpreted to be the legal basis for contact tracing. These included the Public Health (Control of COVID-19) Rules, 2020 under the Public Health Act, which gave powers to a medical officer or a health inspector to enter any premises in order to search for any cases of Covid-19 or inquire whether there is or has been on the premises, any cases of Covid-19. Additionally, section 5 of the rules empowers the medical officer to order the quarantine or isolation of all contacts of the suspected Covid-19 patients.

Also introduced was the Public Health (Prevention of COVID-19) (Requirements and Conditions of Entry into Uganda) Order, 2020 that allows a medical officer to examine for Covid–19, any person arriving in Uganda. The medical officer may board any vehicle, aircraft or vessel arriving in Uganda and examine any person on board.

In the same month, the Ministry of Health also issued additional Guidelines on Quarantine of Individuals in the context of Covid-19 in Uganda, which required all quarantined persons to provide their name, physical address, and telephone contact to the healthy ministry monitoring team.

Earlier in March 2020, the government reportedly  struggled to trace and contact returnees for testing and possible quarantine, as many of them had chosen not to present themselves to the authorities. However, the ministry of health said that it was in possession of the contact details of all returnees, which it was using to trace them.

However, in what appears to be a breach of individual privacy, there were reports of some Ugandans using online platforms, mainly Facebook and WhatsApp to share personal contact details of the suspected returnees, with threats of further exposure should they fail to report for testing.

It remains unclear how the public got access to the personal details of the suspected individual returnees that led to some targeted physical attack and threats of eviction and online exposure that breached the right to personal privacy of these individuals as provided for in the Data Protection and Privacy Act, 2019.

Clampdown on Opposition Rallies and Meetings

In October 2020, Uganda’s Electoral Commission (EC) issued campaign guidelines requiring candidates to ensure that their rallies do not exceed 70 attendees and to ensure they maintain a two metres distance, so as to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The number was later revised to a maximum of 200 people. Contestants were also encouraged to use the media as a primary campaign channel.

However, it has proved a challenge for contestants to adhere to the electoral body’s guidelines on the numbers of attendees. Worse still is that security agents have been accused of breaking up opposition meetings and rallies with less numbers than those prescribed in the guidelines, while turning a blind eye to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, whose candidates’ rallies and processions often gather more than 200 people.

On November 18, 2020, the National Unity Platform (NUP) presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi a.k.a. Bobi Wine was arrested in Luuka District where he was scheduled to address his supporters. Police accused him of having more than 200 attendees. In ensuing protests, mostly in the capital Kampala, security forces shot more than 50 people and arrested over 800 people.

Under the guise of controlling the spread of the virus, opposition presidential candidates are regularly stopped from accessing major towns and are forced to  abandon their plans of campaigning in some districts, or  only hold meetings in low population centres with limited voter numbers. That leaves the mass media as their main means of spreading their messages and reaching voters.

As part of efforts to discourage mass rallies, the UCC in November 2020 issued the Guidelines on the Use of Media during the General Elections and Campaigns 2021. According to the guidelines, all media stations shall not discriminate against any political party or candidate, or subject any political party or candidate to any prejudice in the broadcasting of political adverts. Additionally, all state-owned media stations, in accordance with the Presidential Elections Act, 2005, and the Parliamentary Elections Act, are required to schedule meetings with nominated presidential candidates, parliamentary candidates and other political contenders or their representatives to agree on the schedule or timetable for campaigns, and how it can be shared equitably among the contenders.

On the other hand, all private media stations are required to ensure that all their advertising space and air time is not bought out by one party. Moreover, all political parties, organisations and candidates must be given an opportunity to purchase airtime for political adverts or campaigning where they so request.

However, for several contestants, attempts to use broadcast media, especially radio talk-shows, have been frustrated as they have been denied access. In Soroti district, the FDC presidential candidate, Patrick Oboi Amuriat, was denied access to any of the radio stations. Amuriat said that radio stations including “Etop, Delta and Kyoga Veritas where he had booked for talk shows declined to host him citing intimidation from (the) government.” In Kotido, Amuriat was also denied airtime in any of the radio stations while in Agago, a radio station which was hosting him was switched off air for about 30 minutes during the show.

Kyagulanyi, another presidential candidate, was on November 25, 2020 told to leave Spice FM radio premises in Hoima City, where he was set to address residents of that area, a few minutes after his arrival. Last August, Kyagulanyi dragged the government to court for blocking his radio talk shows.

These patterns are not new. Dr. Kiiza Besigye, who contested against Museveni for the presidency in the last four presidential elections, was on multiple occasions denied access to radio airtime, with the radio stations often warned  not to host him.

In 2016, the state broadcaster UBC was found by the Supreme Court, in the presidential election petition  by then presidential candidate Amama Mbabazi, to have flouted Article 67(3) of the Constitution and Section 24(1) of the Presidential Elections Act. The provisions require that all presidential candidates be given equal time and space on state-owned media to present their programmes to the people.

Impact on Citizen Democratic Participation

With just a few weeks left until the January 14 election), the government of Uganda should restrain itself from further affronts on civil liberties, especially the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, assembly and association, the lifeblood of any democratic society. Efforts to combat and contain the pandemic should not be used as an excuse or tool to stifle democracy.

CIPESA to Participate in IGF 2020 Session on Universal Design and Digital Inaccessibility

IGF 2020 |

Accessibility and Universal Design are directly linked to the amplification of inequality and disadvantage of persons with disabilities through digital transformations. In order to leverage the potentials of Information and communications technology (ICT) for social inclusion, ways have to be identified to increase accessibility and beneficial usage by marginalized groups including people with disabilities.

Join the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2020 Session: Universal Design and Digital Inaccessibility

Despite the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) being one of the most ratified United Nations conventions in history, commitments in terms of improving ICT accessibility have oftentimes not been followed by concrete action. A collaborative effort of stakeholders is necessary to reshape the understanding of inclusion of persons with disabilities and their needs in technology design and thus improving usability and the leverage of “digital dividends” for everyone through joint action.

Today, more and more aspects of political, social and economic life are being shifted to the online sphere where the societal exclusion of persons with disabilities is amplified. At the same time there is evidence that not only persons with disabilities but everyone could benefit if ICTs were designed inclusively. As part of the 2020 Internet Governance Forum, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) alongside speakers from the German Corporation for International Cooperation GmbH (GIZ),  UNESCO, AfriLabs, InAble, the GSMA, and the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) will participate in a session aimed at amplifying the social inequalities for persons with disabilities on Friday, 13 November, 2020 – 10:40 to 12:10 CET. See more about it here.

This discussion echoes the findings of a CIPESA research report titled, Access Denied: How Telecom Operators in Africa are failing Persons with Disabilities which noted that even though the telecommunication industry plays a critical role in the provision of information and communication services to the public, it has continuously failed to meet the needs of persons with disabilities.

The research presents some notable initiatives and common challenges, and offers recommendations to telecom operators, disability rights organisations, and government agencies charged with protecting and promoting the rights of persons with disabilities.

Research report launched at the 2020 edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica)

It also observes that the benefits of creating products that are accessible to all extend not only to persons with disabilities but also to companies, by opening a new market opportunity for vendors among persons with disabilities. It further notes that the telecommunications industry needs to be proactive in creating and promoting awareness of accessible mobile communications among persons with disabilities, their caregivers, and organisations of persons with disabilities.

See the full report here.