Kenya’s 2022 Political Sphere Overwhelmed by Disinformation

Ahead of the August 9, 2022, general elections, Kenya has been hit by a deluge of disinformation, which is fanning hate speech, threatening electoral integrity, and is expected to persist well beyond the polls. Last month, the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) and CIPESA convened stakeholders in Nairobi to disseminate the findings of research on the nature, pathways, and effects of disinformation in the lead-up to the election, and the actions required to combat disinformation. Below is a summary of the report findings and takeaways from the dissemination event, as captured by KICTANet:

There is a lot of strange information going on around the country, and this has been happening for a while. During the Kenya Internet Governance Forum (IGF) week, the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) in partnership with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) held a workshop to disseminate a report on  Disinformation in Kenya’s Political Sphere: Actors, Pathways and Effects. The research is part of a regional study conducted by CIPESA, that explores the nature, perpetrators, and effects of misinformation in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, and Kenya.

As Kenya nears the 2022 general elections, disinformation remains at its peak levels, both at grassroots and national levels. The availability of sophisticated technology and its ease of use has enabled a wide range of political actors to act as originators and spreaders of disinformation.

Currently, there is no law that clearly defines or distinguishes between misinformation and disinformation. However, it is an offense to deliberately create and spread false or misleading information in the country. False publications and the publication of false information are punishable under the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act under Sections 22 and 23. It is a crime to relay false information with the intent that such information is viewed as true, with or without monetary gain. However, these same laws can also be used to silence dissent, making it a double-edged sword.

The study identifies different forms of disinformation that take place both physically and online. They include deep fakes, text messages, WhatsApp messages, and physical copies such as pamphlets and fliers. These are spread through the use of keyboard armies on social media, where politicians up to the grassroots levels hire influencers, and content creators who spread messages around them or against their opponents. This is done through mass brigading and document and content manipulation. The rationale is driven by the desire to get ahead politically or economically and is fuelled by an ecosystem that is fertile for the spread of this vice.

According to Safaricom, in the year 2017, 50% of its communications department time was spent monitoring fraud and fake information at different times. The instigators of this disinformation are influencers, politicians themselves, people they work with, and their parties.

There is a flow to how the fake news gets to the audience, and disinformation does not start with the pictures but with a plan that is part of a bigger political strategy. It starts with identifying the target audience, choosing the personnel and people to push the message, and then narrative development is done. This is followed by content development, which includes videos, pictures or memes, and audio files. Once this is done, the content is then strategically released to the unknowing public, who, without critically analyzing the information, spread it far and wide to a wider audience. This results in diminished trust in democratic and political institutions and restricted access to reliable and diverse information.

This can be addressed by having increased government engagement on social media as opposed to it being reactive only. For example, the government needs to be an active contributor to accurate information. Considering there is a space in which disinformation thrives, in particular where there is a lack of response, rumors spread. Civil society should also engage with policymakers and media representatives on enhancing digital literacy and fact-checking skills. The intermediaries should increase transparency and accountability in content moderation measures and conduct cross-sectoral periodic policy reviews.

Key Takeaways

  1. The weakest link in disinformation is the citizen, and therefore, one of the most effective ways to tackle the issue is to empower the citizenry to be able to detect and respond wisely to misinformation. If the general public is not informed, it is a lost battle.
  2. There is a thin line between misinformation and mal-information and it can easily be blurred.
  3. The Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act 2018 is a double-edged sword that censors yet tries to get some accountability from the general public in regard to spreading misinformation.
  4. Safaricom reported that during the 2017 election, 50% of its time was spent monitoring fraudulent interactions.

 

One Year In: Covid-19 Deepening Africa’s Democratic Regression

By CIPESA Staff Writer |

In September 2020, our research on the State of Internet Freedom in Africa established that the ultimate effect of the measures instituted in fighting Covid-19 was that they had deepened the democracy deficit in several African countries. This was because, increasingly, more states in the region had fallen short of living up to their citizens’ democratic expectations as they implemented measures to fight the pandemic.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) was faring badly in its democratic credentials, fighting for bottom position with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Of the 44 African countries included in the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index for 2019, half were characterised as authoritarian regimes and many of the others were semi-authoritarian.

As anticipated, it has gotten worse. According to the Democracy Index for 2020, the number of authoritarian regimes in Sub-Saharan Africa last year rose from 22 to 24 – more than half of the 44 countries in the region that the index covered. Burkina Faso and Mali were the new entrants to the unsavoury ranks of authoritarian regimes. Many Sub-Saharan African countries are concentrated at the bottom of the index, and the region boasts just one “full democracy” – Mauritius. During 2020, 31 countries in the region were downgraded, eight stagnated, and just five scored better.

“After experiencing two consecutive years of significant setbacks, democracy in Africa appears to be in a perilous state,” notes the index. The region’s overall average score “fell to by far the lowest score for the continent since the index began in 2006.” The fight against Covid-19, muddled and stolen elections, and insecurity (including Jihadist insurgencies in west Africa), all played their part in the democratic regression experienced in the region.

As is shown in the 2020 edition of the State of Internet Freedom in Africa report, a plethora of regressive measures were introduced in fighting the pandemic, and they had starkly undermined democracy, marked by a dwindling respect for rights to expression, information, assembly, and privacy. In many instances, these measures resulted in a lower level of stakeholder engagement in public affairs and a decline in governments’ transparency and accountability.

Deepening the Democracy Deficit: The democratic regression in a number of countries in the region could persist beyond the Covid-19 crisis, unless the measures imposed are reversed and deliberate efforts are taken to promote greater respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.

While the Arab Spring was a turning point on digital rights in the region, Covid-19 could be another profoundly negative watershed moment. The Arab Spring, during which social media aided organising against autocratic regimes, some of which were overthrown, opened the eyes of many African authoritarian regimes to the power of digital technologies, and they went ahead to make laws to prescribe cyber crimes, to enable interception of communications, to control use of online platforms, and they started instituting measures such as website blockages, censorship of short messaging services, and disruption of networks. – State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2020

According to the index, world over the biggest regressions during 2020 occurred in the most authoritarian countries, where regimes took advantage of the global health emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic to persecute and crack down on dissenters and political opponents.

Full democracy Flawed democracy Hybrid regime Authoritarian regime
Mauritius Cape Verde Malawi Mali Eswatini
Botswana Madagascar Mauritania Guinea
South Africa Senegal Burkina Faso Togo
Namibia Liberia Angola Cameroon
Ghana Tanzania Gabon Djibouti
Lesotho Kenya Mozambique Guinea-Bissau
Uganda Ethiopia Eritrea
Zambia Niger Burundi
Sierra Leone Zimbabwe Equatorial Guinea
Benin Congo Brazzaville Chad
Gambia Rwanda CAR
Ivory Coast Comoros DRC
Nigeria

The index states that the decline in Africa’s overall democracy score in 2020 was partly driven by coronavirus-related lockdowns, which had a negative bearing on civil liberties, including stripping citizens of their freedom to assemble and travel, and causing severe interruption to livelihoods. There was high-handedness of the police in enforcing curfews, in such countries as Nigeria (where police killed people in enforcing the lockdown), Kenya and Senegal.

Africa’s deterioration was also precipitated by declining scores for many countries in the category of electoral process and pluralism, with disputed elections in Tanzania and Guinea cited as examples. Of note, Malawi’s standing improved on account of a smooth election held during the year, in which the incumbent president was defeated by an opposition candidate.

Yet some countries saw Covid-19 as an opportunity to stifle opposition campaigns during election times. The index states: “Constraints placed on political activity – applied disproportionately for the opposition – ahead of January 2021 elections in Uganda illustrated how autocrats use the excuse of new threats such as coronavirus to crack down on the opposition and hold on to power during a time of crisis.”

Covid-19 control measures have chipped away at many of hallmarks of a democratic society, such as the ability by citizens to participate in civic matters and the conduct of public affairs. In the countries where civil liberties have been eroded the most, growing hostility of governments to dissenting opinions, including on their handling of Covid-19, has contributed to the adoption of stringent measures and the enactment and enforcement of repressive laws on surveillance, fake news and criminal defamation and practices such as legal threats, intimidation, arrests, detentions, prosecutions, and state surveillance.

These measures have, in turn, forced human rights defenders, journalists, activists, the political opposition, and ordinary citizens to self-censor, disengage from participating in public affairs, and refrain from exercising their rights to participate online and offline. This has been the case in countries such as Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Egypt, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Morocco, Kenya, and Algeria. Yet, in the absence of engaged citizens, the respect for human rights, including the rule of law, suffers. Such a trend, if left unchecked, could persist well beyond the coronavirus crisis.

While Covid-19 could have served as a driver towards improving access and use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Africa, it has potentially widened the digital divide on the continent, yet for the most part the actions of many governments have undermined, rather than promoted, greater access and affordability of digital technologies.

Although technology can play an important role in containing the pandemic, its application should not violate human rights. In most countries, the measures introduced to check the spread of Covid-19 were necessary to address a public health emergency, but some were applied beyond the intended purpose, and need to be revised to imbed human rights principles. As it is, the imposition of unregulated, unchecked and excessive emergency measures by governments in collaboration with non-state actors during the pandemic period raises fundamental questions on their commitment to protecting digital rights. Thus, the debate about the ethics and legality of measures undertaken, and the extent of the associated risks, is imperative in resetting digital rights amidst the Covid-19 fallout.

See more of our work on the impact of Covid-19 in the African digital rights and democracy landscape.

One Year In: Covid-19 Deepening Africa's Democratic Regression

By CIPESA Staff Writer |

In September 2020, our research on the State of Internet Freedom in Africa established that the ultimate effect of the measures instituted in fighting Covid-19 was that they had deepened the democracy deficit in several African countries. This was because, increasingly, more states in the region had fallen short of living up to their citizens’ democratic expectations as they implemented measures to fight the pandemic.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) was faring badly in its democratic credentials, fighting for bottom position with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Of the 44 African countries included in the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index for 2019, half were characterised as authoritarian regimes and many of the others were semi-authoritarian.

As anticipated, it has gotten worse. According to the Democracy Index for 2020, the number of authoritarian regimes in Sub-Saharan Africa last year rose from 22 to 24 – more than half of the 44 countries in the region that the index covered. Burkina Faso and Mali were the new entrants to the unsavoury ranks of authoritarian regimes. Many Sub-Saharan African countries are concentrated at the bottom of the index, and the region boasts just one “full democracy” – Mauritius. During 2020, 31 countries in the region were downgraded, eight stagnated, and just five scored better.

“After experiencing two consecutive years of significant setbacks, democracy in Africa appears to be in a perilous state,” notes the index. The region’s overall average score “fell to by far the lowest score for the continent since the index began in 2006.” The fight against Covid-19, muddled and stolen elections, and insecurity (including Jihadist insurgencies in west Africa), all played their part in the democratic regression experienced in the region.

As is shown in the 2020 edition of the State of Internet Freedom in Africa report, a plethora of regressive measures were introduced in fighting the pandemic, and they had starkly undermined democracy, marked by a dwindling respect for rights to expression, information, assembly, and privacy. In many instances, these measures resulted in a lower level of stakeholder engagement in public affairs and a decline in governments’ transparency and accountability.

Deepening the Democracy Deficit: The democratic regression in a number of countries in the region could persist beyond the Covid-19 crisis, unless the measures imposed are reversed and deliberate efforts are taken to promote greater respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.

While the Arab Spring was a turning point on digital rights in the region, Covid-19 could be another profoundly negative watershed moment. The Arab Spring, during which social media aided organising against autocratic regimes, some of which were overthrown, opened the eyes of many African authoritarian regimes to the power of digital technologies, and they went ahead to make laws to prescribe cyber crimes, to enable interception of communications, to control use of online platforms, and they started instituting measures such as website blockages, censorship of short messaging services, and disruption of networks. – State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2020

According to the index, world over the biggest regressions during 2020 occurred in the most authoritarian countries, where regimes took advantage of the global health emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic to persecute and crack down on dissenters and political opponents.

Full democracy Flawed democracy Hybrid regime Authoritarian regime
Mauritius Cape Verde Malawi Mali Eswatini
Botswana Madagascar Mauritania Guinea
South Africa Senegal Burkina Faso Togo
Namibia Liberia Angola Cameroon
Ghana Tanzania Gabon Djibouti
Lesotho Kenya Mozambique Guinea-Bissau
Uganda Ethiopia Eritrea
Zambia Niger Burundi
Sierra Leone Zimbabwe Equatorial Guinea
Benin Congo Brazzaville Chad
Gambia Rwanda CAR
Ivory Coast Comoros DRC
Nigeria

The index states that the decline in Africa’s overall democracy score in 2020 was partly driven by coronavirus-related lockdowns, which had a negative bearing on civil liberties, including stripping citizens of their freedom to assemble and travel, and causing severe interruption to livelihoods. There was high-handedness of the police in enforcing curfews, in such countries as Nigeria (where police killed people in enforcing the lockdown), Kenya and Senegal.

Africa’s deterioration was also precipitated by declining scores for many countries in the category of electoral process and pluralism, with disputed elections in Tanzania and Guinea cited as examples. Of note, Malawi’s standing improved on account of a smooth election held during the year, in which the incumbent president was defeated by an opposition candidate.

Yet some countries saw Covid-19 as an opportunity to stifle opposition campaigns during election times. The index states: “Constraints placed on political activity – applied disproportionately for the opposition – ahead of January 2021 elections in Uganda illustrated how autocrats use the excuse of new threats such as coronavirus to crack down on the opposition and hold on to power during a time of crisis.”

Covid-19 control measures have chipped away at many of hallmarks of a democratic society, such as the ability by citizens to participate in civic matters and the conduct of public affairs. In the countries where civil liberties have been eroded the most, growing hostility of governments to dissenting opinions, including on their handling of Covid-19, has contributed to the adoption of stringent measures and the enactment and enforcement of repressive laws on surveillance, fake news and criminal defamation and practices such as legal threats, intimidation, arrests, detentions, prosecutions, and state surveillance.

These measures have, in turn, forced human rights defenders, journalists, activists, the political opposition, and ordinary citizens to self-censor, disengage from participating in public affairs, and refrain from exercising their rights to participate online and offline. This has been the case in countries such as Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Egypt, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Morocco, Kenya, and Algeria. Yet, in the absence of engaged citizens, the respect for human rights, including the rule of law, suffers. Such a trend, if left unchecked, could persist well beyond the coronavirus crisis.

While Covid-19 could have served as a driver towards improving access and use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Africa, it has potentially widened the digital divide on the continent, yet for the most part the actions of many governments have undermined, rather than promoted, greater access and affordability of digital technologies.

Although technology can play an important role in containing the pandemic, its application should not violate human rights. In most countries, the measures introduced to check the spread of Covid-19 were necessary to address a public health emergency, but some were applied beyond the intended purpose, and need to be revised to imbed human rights principles. As it is, the imposition of unregulated, unchecked and excessive emergency measures by governments in collaboration with non-state actors during the pandemic period raises fundamental questions on their commitment to protecting digital rights. Thus, the debate about the ethics and legality of measures undertaken, and the extent of the associated risks, is imperative in resetting digital rights amidst the Covid-19 fallout.

See more of our work on the impact of Covid-19 in the African digital rights and democracy landscape.

Why Access to Information is Essential for Democratic Elections in Africa

By Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn |

The importance of access to information in the electoral process and for democratic governance is documented in the African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance, and other sub-regional treaties and standards.

Without access to reliable information during the electoral process, it is difficult for citizens to eloquently exercise their right to make an informed choice. For elections to be free, fair, and credible, voters must have access to information at all stages of the electoral process. Access to information enables voters to be educated and informed about political processes so that they can have a basis upon which to vote for political office holders and to hold public officials responsible for their acts or oversights in the implementation of their actions.

Though Africa has developed several normative frameworks and legal instruments defining democratic elections, the wider dissemination of relevant information during the electoral process remains a challenge, putting the credibility of the process into question.

The Revised Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information under principle 13 emphasises that any preparatory work for elections should take into account the need for access to information and adherence to the African Union Commission’s Guidelines on access to information and elections.

Over the past few years, access to information has further been made easier through advances in information and communications technology (ICT), especially the internet, which have expanded the avenues through which people can access and share news and information.

Consequently, the importance of internet access in the dissemination of information that is politically balanced and adequate, particularly during election times, has also been underscored under many of the regional human rights instruments     .

For example, the UN Committee on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) has emphasised that the internet is one way of expression since paragraph 2 of article 19 protects all forms of expression and the means of their dissemination. Similarly, principles 37 and 38 of the Revised Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information provide protection for access to the internet.

Despite existing guarantees, both state and non-state actors have violated these rights by limiting access to information during election periods through ordering internet shutdowns, clamping down on news media, and restricting the movements of political opponents to campaign. This in turn undermined the reliability of electoral processes.

Trends also indicate that most of the African countries conducting elections in 2020 and beyond have experienced internet shutdowns, often affecting the fairness and credibility of the elections.

The situation has further been complicated by COVID-19, which has hampered crucial offline electioneering, making the online space crucial. Though state and non-state actors have used various types of strategies to censor and restrict information during election times including through blocking certain content and internet pages, the impact blanket internet shutdowns have on access to information is massive. This strategy is not the best option as internet shutdowns only present short term solutions. Other alternatives should be sought, such as progressive laws, judicial oversight , and legal actions before domestic and regional courts     .

In this report, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) explores the challenges citizens face in accessing crucial information in Africa, especially during elections, despite the recent developments in the ICT sector, including the internet which is often shut down as governments attempt to stifle their citizens’ ability to seek and share information online.

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.

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