By Robert Ssempala HRNJ-Uganda National Coordinator.
This statement was originally published on the Daily Monitor on 14th June 2017
On May 28, Ugandans gathered at Fort Portal to commemorate the 51st World Communications Day. The day is meant to celebrate the role of communication globally. It was on this day when the Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Mr Frank Tumwebaze, laid out government’s intention to curtail freedom of communication. According to Daily Monitor of May 31, the minister said there is a need to “filter” social media content on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, citing instances of people taking advantage of such platforms to “terrorise” the country. By referring to “filtering,” the minister actually meant censoring free speech.
According to the UN, government action to curtail freedom of expression must be specifically tailored to address actual dangers that threaten national security. Instead of representing a focused and specific response, filtering all communications on these platforms is vague and over-reaching. Such a response would have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression hence hampering the free flow of information. Such actions would constitute immense interference to the fundamental right of Ugandans to seek, receive, and exchange knowledge, ideas, and opinions through the media of their choice, as laid out in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Uganda is a proud signatory.
At the May 28 event, Bishop Robert Muhirwa provided a personal example of why social media platforms like Facebook should be “filtered”— someone had posed as him online and asked for money. However, proposal for such a broad and over-sweeping law is a wrong reaction to the situation for three main reasons: Firstly, such impersonations and fraudulent acts long precede the dawn of social media globally, and there are already criminal laws in place to respond to such actions.
Secondly, there are concerns regarding the transparency of the ICT ministry’s actions in choosing how, when, and what content to “filter”. A regulatory action that greatly impacts such a large percentage of Ugandans should be put forth by Parliament, not the Executive. Thirdly, the risk of taking away the fundamental right of freedom of expression far outweighs the alleged national security interest of “filtering” all content on social media platforms. If national security was the genuine reason for the regulation, then the ICT minister should propose a narrowly tailored solution, not a comprehensive censorship of all Ugandans on social media.
Uganda would not be the first African country to “filter” Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter in recent years. In fact, Uganda had its first taste of a social media blackout during last year’s (2016) elections. Leaders in Zimbabwe, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Burundi and Ethiopia have all blocked social media access recently because of the power it provides to the ordinary citizens as well as political rivals to speak out freely.
Earlier this year, Cameroon shut down Internet access for part of its population as a reaction to growing political activism in the southern part of the country. Such countries do not fear dissemination of false news, instead they fear having to freely disclose information to disprove their barefaced falsehoods. Will Uganda follow suit? The proposed “filtering” plan would be in direct violation of the UN Human Rights Commission Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression of 2011, which held that governments could not transfer the same standards for radio and television media communications to Internet communication and that prior censorship could not restrict free speech. The ICT ministry has the opportunity to lead in promoting the human rights by protecting the freedom of expression by not following through on this draconian censorship plan.
Communication is such a sensitive sector in Uganda and globally which must be jealously protected from overzealous politicians from exploiting it to the detriment of their citizens. It is in this very vein that in 2012, the framers of the Uganda Communications Act 2013, required the ICT minister to table all regulations before Parliament for approval by putting clauses 93(3) and 93(1) respectively.
Unfortunately, the 10th Parliament has since amended the law to give the minister wild powers to control the media as per the political interests of the regime. This was contrary to the aspirations and wishes of the majority Ugandans, especially the telecommunications companies, media development organisations, rights activists, academician, students among others who submitted proposals to the ICT Committee against the proposed amendment then. With the amendment, this communications sector is now at the whims of the minister, which leaves it exposed. Ssempala, the National Coordinator, Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) and European Union Human Rights Defender’s Award Winner, 2016