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.

Recent Developments in Telecoms Regulation Threaten Online Rights in Uganda

By Edrine Wanyama |
In April 2017, the parliament of Uganda gave the minister in charge of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) powers to single-handedly make regulations that govern the telecommunications sector. Hitherto, regulations proposed by the minister had to receive parliamentary approval.
The Uganda Communications (Amendment) Bill (2016), which parliament passed on April 6, 2017, means that making regulations for the telecommunications sector is in the sole preserve of the minister. Among others, such regulations are related to licensing and fees, operator obligations, competition, consumer rights and protection. It is for this reason that the newly passed law, which was gazzetted back in February 2016 when still a bill faced criticism from civil society.

The Minister may, after consultation with the Commission and with the approval of Parliament, by statutory instrument, make regulations for better carrying into effect the provisions of this Act.” Section 93(1) of the Uganda Communications Act 2013

  “The Minister may, after consultation with the Commission, by statutory instrument, make regulations for better carrying into effect the provisions of this Act.” Section 93(1) of the Uganda Communications (Amendment) Bill (2016)

The authority, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), was set up in 1997 by the now repealed Communications Act, Cap. 106 (section 3) and now established by the Uganda Communications Act, 2013 (section 4) (the Act)  as the regulator of the communications sector but has since inception faced criticism over lack of independence from the government. The Act gives extensive powers to the minister of ICT, including to appoint the commission’s executive director and board members and to approve its budgets.

Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about mass surveillance particularly in the absence of a data protection and privacy  law to safeguard citizen data collected by the state and private parties. These are further aggravated by the haphazard implementation of laws which have an impact on citizens’ communications.
On April 12, 2017, the telecom industry regulator Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) announced a seven-day deadline for subscribers to update their registration details using national identity (ID) cards in a move reportedly to address cybercrime. Mandatory SIM card registration has been in force since March 2012. At the time of the original deadline for conclusion of the exercise in August 2013, the commission reported that 92% of SIM cards were registered. However, investigations into past and recent crimes have revealed the continued existence and use of unregistered SIM cards.
The April 12 directive raised concerns about the conflicting requirements for the validation of SIM cards, with subscribers pointing out that various other forms of identification other than a national ID should be recognised. Pursuant to the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act 2010, Section 9(1), SIM card registration requires the subscriber’s full name, residential address, business address, postal address and identity number as contained in an identity document. Other forms of identification  that have previously been used by subscribers have included employer identity cards, driving licenses, students’ identity cards and passports.
However, following an interim order as well as public statements by the Uganda Law Society and other stakeholders, the Prime Minister issued a directive extending the SIM card verification and validation deadline for a month to May 19, 2017.
The SIM card registration exercise has attracted criticisms from human rights defenders who claim it violates freedom of expression and goes against Article 27 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to privacy by possibly enabling mass surveillance of communications. Further, the absence of a data protection and privacy law continues to expose citizens’ data which is increasingly and now repeatedly being collected by the state. There is accordingly no guarantee that personal data will not be unlawfully processes and used.
Over the past year, national security has been cited as the basis for directives by the UCC including instructions given to telecommunications service providers to enforce two social media shutdowns during 2016.
Although Uganda has signed and ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and also fully subscribes to the international bill of rights, specifically the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights there are repeated affronts to the rights enshrined in these instruments.
It is for this reason that the Collaboration on International Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) calls for the following actions to be taken:

  1. The Government should adopt a multistakeholder approach in decisions affecting the ICT industry in Uganda. Decisions that affect the rights of citizens should be evidence-based and reached in consultation with other stakeholders including academia, civil society, media and the private sector.
  2. The Parliament should immediately pass the Data Protection and Privacy Bill, 2015 subject to the proposed amendments from the citizenry.
  3. Government should harmonise the implementation of laws pertaining to registration of data of citizens, refugees and non-citizens in Uganda, including the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act (2010) and the Registration of Persons Act (2015).
  4. There is a need to reinstate the oversight role of the Parliament over the Minister for ICT in making regulations for the ICT sector. Failure to do so will leave excessive powers within the ambit of the minister and resultantly, lead to abuse.

Read more on the State of Internet Freedom Uganda 2016.

Uganda’s Assurances on Social Media Monitoring Ring Hollow

The Uganda Government’s attempt to reassure citizens that its plans to monitor social media users were not intended to curb internet rights has failed to assuage fears that authorities are clamping down on free expression of the burgeoning Uganda online community.
For one, observers say Uganda has a bad record as far as respecting citizens’ right to free expression is concerned. And this record seems to be getting worse. Secondly, the country has precedents in recent years, when the government ordered clampdowns on the citizens’ right to seek, receive, and impart information through digital technologies.
On May 30, Security Minister Muruli Musaka announced that the government would form a Social Media Monitoring Centre to to weed out those who use it to damage the government and people’s reputations.” He accused some social media users of being “bent to cause a security threat to the nation.”
The minister made the announcement as security forces were ending a 10-day cordon of the country’s two main independent English dailies. While purportedly looking for a dossier written by the coordinator of security services, excerpts of which The Monitor and Red Pepper newspapers had published, security agencies closed the two newspapers and two radio stations run by The Monitor, for 10 days. The media houses were only reopened after signing commitments to be “responsible” in future reporting on issues related to “national security”.
The security minister’s announcement drew vibrant debate on social media and broadcast media, which prompted a government spokesperson to offer what he termed a clarification. Ofwono Opondo, head of the Uganda Media Centre and the government’s spokesperson, said the envisaged monitoring would only target cyber criminals and such types, not the majority of Uganda’s social media users whom he described as “responsible.”
Few people familiar with the Uganda government’s record are taking the spokesperson’s word. Indeed, while the legislation in Uganda states the circumstances under which an order may be made for online content to be taken down or blocked on terrorism or other grounds, recent years have seen instances of takedowns that have ignored following the law. Numerous media houses have been shut down for varying periods of time, over news and debates the government deemed a threat to national security or counter to the public interest.  There have been orders to takedown or block access to certain websites, with at least one court case against an online journalist. This, according to observers has seen the rights of human rights activists, the political opposition and media regularly trampled by state organs.
Timothy Kalyegira, editor of the online newspaper Uganda Record was in July 2010 charged with publishing material online “with intent to defame the person of the President” over articles that suggested the government was behind the July 11, 2010 twin bombs that killed 76 Ugandans in the capital Kampala. The journalist was initially charged under sedition law, but once the constitutional court declared this law unconstitutional following an appeal by journalists, defamation charges were referred against him. Security agencies also confiscated the journalist’s laptop and mobile phone.
On April 14, 2011, the regulator – the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) – instructed ISPs to block access to Facebook and Twitter for 24 hours “to eliminate the connection and sharing of information that incites the public.” The order came in the heat of the ‘walk to work’ protests in various towns over rising fuel and food prices. The regulator’s letter stated that the order had been prompted by “a request from the security agencies that there is need to minimise the use of the media that may escalate violence to the public in respect of the on-going situation due to the demonstration relating to ‘Walk to Work’, mainly by the opposition.”
Earlier in February 2011, UCC directed telecom companies to block and regulate text messages that could instigate hatred, violence and unrest during the presidential election period. The Commission issued 18 words and names which mobile phone short message service (SMS) providers were instructed to flag if they were contained in any text message. The providers were then supposed to read the rest of the message and if it was deemed to be “controversial or advanced to incite the public”, they would block it.
In February 2006, UCC reportedly instructed ISPs to block access to, a website that published anti-government gossip. Authorities alleged that the website was publishing “malicious and false information against the ruling party NRM and its presidential candidate.”
The Regulation of Interception of Communications (RIC), 2010, which parliament hurriedly passed in the aftermath of the July 2010 bomb attacks, allows for interception of communications and possible intrusion into personal communications. It also requires telecom companies to collect customers’ information, including name, address and identity number, and to take other measures to enable interception. A registration of all SIM card owners in Uganda exercise concluded on May 31, 2013, which could make the monitoring easier.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Terrorism Act No.14 of 2002 gives security officers powers to intercept the communications of a person suspected of terrorist activities and to keep such persons under surveillance. The scope of the interception and surveillance includes letters and postal packages, telephone calls, faxes, emails and other communications, as well monitoring meetings of any group of persons. Others powers include the surveillance (including electronic) of individual’s movements and activities, and access to their bank accounts.
Uganda has an estimated 6.2 million internet users. Web traffic analysis by rank Facebook as the most accessed website in the country. Other social media sites, such as Youtube, Blogger, LinkedIn and Twitter are among the top 15.
*Under the OpenNetAfrica initiative, CIPESA researches into internet freedoms in various African countries. Read more on Intermediary Liability in Uganda here.