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.

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.

Uganda's Social Media Tax Undermining Covid-19 Fight

By Juliet Nanfuka |

Globally, in the wake of the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID19), social media has played various roles, such as  filling information vacuums and providing channels for citizens to demand accountability and transparency. In Uganda, the government and other agencies have utilised social media as one of the avenues for disseminating information to citizens, including providing status updates on confirmed cases, as well as running public health and safety campaigns. 

However, the effectiveness of social media to reach a wider audience in Uganda has likely been undermined by the social media tax, which the finance ministry introduced in July 2018. The tax on so-called Over-the-Top (OTT) services requires  telecom subscribers to pay a daily subscription in order to access popular social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp. 

Despite several requests to suspend the tax during the pandemic, the government has upheld it, thereby  excluding segments of the population from easily accessing information and resources via the taxable platforms. Last month, the Speaker of Parliament joined the chorus of those urging the suspension of the tax so as to aid the fight against the pandemic. Her call rode on the revelation by the tax authority that the OTT tax had dismally failed to raise the revenue earlier anticipated, and admission from the minister for information and communications technology that the tax needed to be rethought.

Uganda’s internet penetration stands at 38%, but with research indicating that many subscribers have more than one internet subscription, the proportion of citizens that use the internet could be much lower than 38%. A key challenge is cost. An average Ugandan telecom subscriber spends UGX 10,500 (USD 2.8) per month on voice, SMS and data, yet  access to social media for a month costs an additional USD 1.6 as OTT tax.

Indeed, multiple and high taxation on digitisation remains a stumbling block to increased inclusion not only to basic social media access but also for mobile money usage, digital banking, and access to public e-services.

While all forms of communication including radio, television and in some cases, loudspeakers are playing vital roles in keeping citizens informed on Covid-19, social media is providing a valuable channel for reporting public health gaps, encouraging transparency, accountability, clarification and case monitoring – yet its reach is limited by the OTT tax.

In the early stages of Uganda’s lockdown, it was through social media posts of academic and satirist, Dr. Spire Ssentongo, that many citizens learnt of the cracks in the states’ quarantine processes, such as the forced excessive accommodation prices for quarantined individuals, and the continued public operations of hotels that had been designated as gazetted quarantine centres. Many others also took to social media to share their experiences and the Ministry of Health was forced to respond to these concerns.

Meanwhile, opposition Member of Parliament Robert Kyaluganyi used his social media platform to launch an educative music video on the pandemic in March, and within 10 hours of its release it had garnered more than 700,000 views. He later tweeted that he had  numerous requests for authorisation for the song to be played on television and radio stations.

At government level, some key ministries are struggling with the optimal utilisation of their social media platforms and basic information availability on their websites. For instance, the Ministry of Education and Sports website has no information related to how the education sector should cope with the pandemic. Instead, a series of tweets were made through the account of the ministry’s head, Janet Museveni, pointing to a PDF which details some measures the ministry is undertaking, none of which make any reference to the use of technology or have any indication of where the suggested educational content could be found online.

Yet some entities have showed how technology is aiding their efforts to combat Covid-19. Among them was a tweet by the  Uganda Revenue Authority (@URAuganda) highlighting how investment in the Regional Cargo Tracking System (RCTS) had helped to intercept a truck driver who tested positive for Covid-19. The system was launched in 2017 to track goods under customs control from point of loading to a final destination within Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda.

Back in 2017, the government launched the Uganda Digital Vision,  a national policy and strategic framework to guide the country’s digital transformation and provide a unified direction for ICT development. With the social media tax undermining access to digital information and services, and key ministries failing to leverage digital technologies in providing critical public services, the Digital Vision does not seem to be delivering well on its promises.


IST-Africa 2020 Conference Kampala

Hosted by the Government of Uganda through the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Supported by the European Commission and African Union Commission, IEEE Africa Council, IEEE Uganda Section, IST-Africa Week 2020 (Kampala, Uganda, May) is the fifteenth in an annual series of Ministerial Level Technology Research Conferences.
Click here for more information on the event.

Africa in the Crosshairs of New Disinformation and Surveillance Schemes That Undermine Democracy

By Daniel Mwesigwa |

A range of spyware vendors including Italian Hacking Team, the Anglo-German Gamma Group, and Israeli’s NSO Group, have found a ready market in authoritarian and repressive governments in Africa and elsewhere. Similarly, systematic propaganda campaigns designed by meddlesome actors – including government agents and ambitious data analytics companies such as Cambridge Analytica working on behalf of state and non-state actors – are becoming conspicuous in Africa, especially during electoral periods. 

The tools and tactics of these operators, who are mostly non-African, are increasingly undermining democracy and respect for human rights in Africa, as they enable mass surveillance and disinformation that manipulates and undermines political discourse. 

For example, Chinese tech giant Huawei and its technicians were implicated in an August 15, 2019 exposé by The Wall Street Journal that detailed how the company’s staff had helped the Uganda Police to hack into the encrypted communications of an opposition figure. As a result, the security officers were able to thwart the opposition leader’s mobilisation plans. The article also stated that technicians from Huawei had helped Zambian authorities to access the phones and social media pages of a group of opposition bloggers who were tracked and arrested. 

Through security vulnerabilities, spyware tools and products give governments, notably intelligence and law enforcement authorities, super powers to surveil using covert intrusion systems across major mobile platforms and operating systems. In 2016, the Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary lab working at the intersection of global affairs and technology at the University of Toronto, uncovered Pegasus – a sophisticated malware developed by the NSO Group that is injected into a target’s phone via text or WhatsApp, a popular messaging tool in Africa. The Citizen Lab has since identified Pegasus operations in over 45 countries including Algeria, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia. But NSO has reportedly bragged time and again how it can penetrate various operating systems and applications irrespective of the security patches.

According to the 2019 State of Internet Freedom in Africa Report, the “surveillance state” in Africa gained notoriety at the turn of the decade, after the infamous Arab Spring that swept across North Africa in 2011, allegedly amplified by dissident voices on social media. The report documents how repressive states such as Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Botswana, and Rwanda have since boosted their surveillance capabilities through procurement of advanced spyware. In 2015, it was revealed that Uganda and Tanzania had procured Hacking Team’s premium Remote Control System (RCS) for intrusion into systems across major mobile platforms and operating systems. 

More recently, the Financial Times reported that Rwanda paid up to USD 10 million to the NSO Group to spy on government critics and dissidents through WhatsApp – an allegation Rwanda president Paul Kagame denied in a presidential press briefing held on November 8, 2019, only acknowledging that they spy on “our enemies” using “human intelligence”. He added, “I wouldn’t spend my money over a nobody [Rwandan exiles] yet we have sectors like education to spend such money”. 

But Kagame’s denial is to be taken with a pinch of salt. In 2016, a Rwandan court sentenced a popular singer, Kizito Mihigo, to 10 years in prison on allegations of conspiracy to overthrow the government, based on hacked private WhatsApp and Skype messages exchanged with alleged dissidents in exile. 

The alleged Rwanda cases appear to be linked to others of NSO infiltrating the WhatsApp accounts of journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents, prominent female leaders, and other members of civil society in up to 20 countries, which prompted Facebook (the owners of WhatsApp) to sue NSO in October 2019. The lawsuit brought by Facebook in the U.S Federal Court accuses the spyware maker of hacking into the WhatsApp accounts of 1,400 users worldwide. While there are scanty details on the exact identities of the affected, it is reported that 174 are lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders and religious leaders.

According to the Financial Times, those targeted in Rwanda, six of whom it interviewed and they confirmed being alerted by WhatsApp about the possible NSO-enabled surveillance of their communications. These included a journalist living in exile in Uganda, who had petitioned the Uganda government “to help protect Rwandans in the country from assassination”; South Africa and UK-based senior members of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group in exile; an army officer who fled Rwanda  in 2008 and testified against members of the Rwandan government in a French court in 2017; and a Belgium-based member of the FDU-Inkingi opposition party.

Meanwhile, some foreign powers are purportedly testing, as New York Times recently reported, “New Disinformation Tactics in Africa to Expand Influence”. The report detailed how the Wagner Group founded by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who allegedly has close ties to the Russian government, has over the last couple of years been running aggressive disinformation campaigns on Facebook. 

It is reported that Prigozhin’s campaign used locally-opened Facebook accounts to disguise behaviour and also used sham news networks that regularly reposted articles from Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news organisation to promote Russian policies while undermining US and French policies in Africa. On October 31, 2019, Facebook reportedly removed these accounts that were influencing operations “in the domestic politics” of eight African countries – Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan.

Earlier in 2019, Facebook reportedly shut down a separate “fake news” operation targeting elections in African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Niger, Angola, and Tunisia, propagated by “inauthentic” accounts on Facebook and Instagram run by Israeli commercial firm, Archimedes Group.  Between 2013 to 2017, governments such as Kenya and Nigeria reportedly hired Cambridge Analytica to manipulate their electorate in a bid to win presidential elections for the incumbents.

Besides the disinformation campaigns linked to Russian actors, and the Israel-made spyware, there are also facial recognition surveillance programmes such as the Huawei’s “Smart Cities”, which has been deployed in 12 African countries. This phenomenon is referred to by some as an export of digital authoritarianism. 

It is now evident that governments and non-state actors face an uphill task of combatting the governance challenges caused by this phenomenon. Accordingly, governments, with the help of tech platforms, need to understand what legislation and policies, including oversight and enforcement mechanisms, are necessary to strengthen the protection of democracy and human rights in the rapidly changing digital world.