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Threats, violence, laws, and taxes: The many approaches to stifling access to information in Uganda (Demo)

IFEX’s Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Editor spoke to Robert Ssempala of the Human Rights Journalists Network-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda), Cathy Anite, executive director of the Freedom of Expression Hub (FoE Hub), Carole Beyanga, managing editor of digital content at Nation Media Uganda, and Juliet Nanfuka, head of research and communications at Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), on the growing impact of a heavily regulated media sector and the suppression of online and offline freedom of expression in Uganda.

How has Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni managed to stay in power for the last 33 years? In large part, through a combination of heavy handed state action and the passage of laws that work to either expand his power or silence critics and criticism.

After his 2016 electoral victory, he reinforced his power through the passage of a contentious constitutional amendment removing the 75-year age limit and extending the presidential term from five to seven years.

Mounting pressure for President Museveni to relinquish power is a constant and simmering undercurrent, as the country faces economic decline, growing unemployment, a burgeoning and frustrated youth population, along with deteriorating service delivery systems. 

He has reacted to this pressure in various ways. He is particularly hard on the media, “calling them biased, enemies of development and threatening to shut them down,” explains Carol Beyang, the digital content managing editor of Nation Media Uganda.

“Journalists covering riots or controversial stories or stories about government officials have found themselves being beaten and their equipment taken away,” she added. 

Robert Ssempala, the executive director of IFEX member organisation Human Rights Journalists Network of Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda), also pointed to the increase in the number of attacks against journalists, ranging from assault, denial of access to news scenes, confiscation and damage of cameras, to arbitrary arrests and detention. 

“There is also the unjustified closure of media houses, slapping of heavy tax burdens on outlets deemed to be critical of government as well as revocation of media houses’ licenses,” he added.

In August, journalists were brutally assaulted, arrested and their equipment confiscated while reporting on the use of live ammunition by the police and army in a violent crackdown on opposition supporters and protestors during a by-election in Arua in August. 

The upshot is that media houses now operate in fear.

“Journalists resort to conventional reporting, and abandon enterprising, interpretative and investigative reporting. It has made it hard for journalists to uncover or expose abuses and to pressure the authorities to rectify the abuses. This has rendered less participation of the public in discussion and decision making on key political and socio-economic matters. It has stifled media from airing freely different political views and ideologies, hence undermining political pluralism despite operating a multi-party political dispensation,” says Ssempala.

Along with threats, intimidation, assaults, detentions and arrests, political power and control in Uganda is wielded through policy and law. 

Cathy Anite, executive director of Freedom of Expression Hub – a not-for-profit organization that strives to promote and defend freedom of expression in the East African region – says President Museveni’s clampdown on the media is made possible through a “restrictive legal and policy framework limiting media rights – which include laws that control rather than regulate the media.” Several enforcement agencies have been named in harassing, blocking and punishing media workers for doing their work. 

The country’s media regulator is one such agency. The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), established through an act in 2013, is most often used to exert its power to subjugate the media into submission. 

The point is highlighted in a report by HRNJ-Uganda. “The UCC […] has in the past, closed down radio stations; forced employers to suspend staff; maliciously warned numerous radio stations against breach of minimum broadcasting standards; and forced every radio and TV channel to relay live broadcasts of speeches by the President of Uganda on Christmas Eve; including withdrawing broadcasting licenses in some cases.”

On 30 April 2019, through a directive issued by UCC, 13 media houses were ordered to suspend 39 employees, including producers, heads of news and heads of programming. The order was made following critical reporting on the court case of rising star Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as popular musician Bobi Wine. 

Directives have been issued to various media houses not to host opposition figures. “On 18 April, while Dr Kizza Besigye, a government critic and opposition leader, was on air at Mubende FM radio, the police and Resident District Commissioner stormed in and switched off the radio, pulling out Dr Besigye,” confirms Anite. 

These actions, coupled with the laws “have instilled a chilling effect and created an atmosphere of fear, in which, after speech, people always anticipate backlash with enforcement agencies like the police,” she adds. 

“The Buganda Kingdom-owned Radio Station Central Broadcasting Services (CBS) to-date operates on a temporary license, just like most of the media houses in Uganda, which makes them act more cautiously to avoid total closures.”

This point is echoed by Beyanga, who notes that “media houses, especially those without legal teams or representatives, find themselves holding back from reporting certain stories because they fear being closed, shut down, or having their licences revoked by the state. As such they do not report as freely as they should.”

While Article 29 (1) (a) of the country’s Constitution expressly guarantees freedom of speech and expression, Uganda has passed over a dozen pieces of legislation that either undermine, stifle, restrict or curtail the enjoyment of freedom of expression.

The propensity to use law to legitimise the control of dissension can be traced back to Africa’s colonial past. “The Penal Code Act, which is from the colonial era, still possesses provisions that restrict the enjoyment of freedom of expression; which among others include sections 53 and 179 which criminalize defamation,” explains Anite. 

In just two decades, President Museveni has passed: the Press and Journalist Act 2000; the Anti-Terrorism Act 2002; the Referendum and Other Provisions Act 2005; the Parliamentary Elections Act 2005; the Regulation of Interception of Communication Act 2010; the Anti-Terrorism Act; the Uganda Communications Act 2013; the Public Order Management Act, 2013 (POMA); The Communication Amendment Bill (2016) (which amended Section 93(1) of the Uganda Communications Act 2013); and the Anti-Pornography Act 2014, all of which impact negatively on media freedom.

But it is the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 which is the Ugandan authorities’ most favoured piece of legislation, with Section 24 and Section 25 being the most frequently used provisions to arrest and jail critical voices.  

This law is particularly appealing – and open to abuse – because the “provisions of the Computer Misuse Act that are often used to curtail speech are very broad and unclear. Therefore, it is quite easy to charge critics under it, since the parameters are wide,” explains Anite. 

In the last 18 months it has been used to arrest and convict outspoken academic Stella Nyanzi, former journalist Joseph Kabuleta, staff of the Red Pepper, and several members of the general public including Joseph Kasumba, a 19-year-old resident of Kanoni town, on accusation of “insulting or annoying the President” for allegedly abusing the head of State who was on his way back from attending a New Year’s church service.

Anite says that “to be regarded as a ‘law,’ the standard is that the provision must be formulated with sufficient precision to enable citizens to regulate their conduct: they must be able – if need be with appropriate advice – to foresee, to a degree that is reasonable in the circumstances, the consequences which a given action may entail. The provisions of the Computer Misuse act do not pass this test.”

The over-regulation of the media landscape has spilled over into the digital space, affecting even more citizens.

Using the narrative that it would broaden the tax base and curb gossip, the Excise Duty Amendment Act 2018 introduced Over-The-Top” (OTT) tax on mobile money transactions in Uganda and access to social media platforms.

Juliet Nanfuka, head of research and communications at Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), an IFEX member organisation, says the goal to broaden the tax base in the country was not attained, due to the subsequent drop in subscribers

“The tax affected basic connectivity pushing it further out of reach for millions – disproportionately and negatively impacting low-income Ugandans, and already vulnerable communities, like women, youth and persons with disabilities (PWDs) in their ability to affordably access the internet,” she added. 

Nanfuka explains how the introduction of and access to OTT platforms and mobile money networks had considerably eased the lives of PWDs, for example. “Platforms like WhatsApp were used to disseminate critical information among individuals with hearing impairments, before the added cost of using social media rendered them unaffordable to many, who already faced challenges in finding employment.” 

“The country’s rural-based and vulnerable users of social media and mobile money have been most affected by the taxes, increasing the percentage of the unconnected and resulting in decreased revenue for telecom/ internet operators. In turn this impacts on gross domestic product (GDP) and hampers job creation,” she said.

A proposed solution by CIPESA and stakeholders on the expansion of  the rights that are being constricted is that: “the government needs to reassess its position on the taxes without inhibiting growth in ICT usage and innovation. Furthermore, evidence-based policy and decision making needs to be pursued by the state.” 

A group of entrepreneurs, journalists, lawyers, activists, technologists, and academics also issued a public statement outlining a set of recommendations offering government alternative solutions “to the current modes of taxation.” 

Instead of taking heed, earlier this month, the UCC issued a directive requiring online publishers to pay a $20 registration fee in order to obtain a license that will permit them to “carry out their communication and commercial services online in the country.” This requirement was enforced through an amendment to the Uganda Communications Act 2013 which parliament passed on 6 April 2017.

As Nanfuka points out: “It is unknown how the state intends monitoring the online content providers in Uganda. It is likely that some content providers will attract more attention than others and become easier targets of the law. Nonetheless, the regulations could possibly contribute to reduced content generation as well as promote self-censorship. 

“In a bid to remain online, there will be individuals and entities who will pay the fees associated with the regulations. However, the perception of state monitoring is elevated among users with large followings. As such, there is likely to be some impact on the nature of content some content producers choose to share and engage in, thus limiting the spread of narrative that is unique to the Ugandan digital space. This could have consequences for online civic engagement, press freedom and even access to information,” she added.

Understanding and seeing through this tactic of over-regulation offers civic society entry points to open up the constricted civic space and fight for democratic digital rights that will allow citizens unfettered access to information and sharing of information.

The post Threats, violence, laws, and taxes: The many approaches to stifling access to information in Uganda appeared first on IFEX.


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