Ugandan social media influencers and bloggers are outraged towards new online regulation of the government to register social media platforms for state monitoring purposes, inferring it is a way to censor critical voices ahead of elections in 2021.
Earlier this year, Uganda’s Communications Commission (UCC) directed all online data communication service providers, including online publishers, owners of online news platforms, and the operators of online sites for radio and television channels to obtain authorisation from the central regulator before they are allowed to operate.
The scheme, which also charges users an annual licence fee of $20 and is ostensibly designed to clamp down on “immoral” content, is targeted at online personalities with large followings on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, according to Ibrahim Bbosa, UCC’s spokesperson.
Stella Nyanzi, a feminist, activist and university lecturer who previously branded the head of state as a “pair of buttocks” and the first lady, who is also education minister, “empty-brained” was convicted and sentenced for cyber harassment. She was acquitted of a charge of offensive communication.
At least 33 Ugandans have been summoned, arrested, charged or prosecuted between 2016 and 2018, under the country’s previous cyber laws, according to Unwanted Witness, a digital communications watchdog.
Grace Natabaalo, communications specialist at the African Centre for Media Excellence said the law posed a threat to free expression.
“This is a clearly an attempt by the state to clamp down on free expression aimed at throttling any threat to Museveni’s power,” said Ms Natabaalo.
Faith Muluni, an online producer and radio presenter based in Kampala is suspicious of the new legislation.
“A lot of questions cross my mind, why the sudden interest in ‘regulating’ online activities on people’s personal pages. “I am able to pay the licence but that means I need now to ‘tone down’ since there is [also]now a Computer Misuse Act that has been used to persecute activists and those who don’t seem to agree with the current regime,” she said.
The act has made cyber harassment and offensive communication crimes.
The former is punishable by a fine of some $134 (£104) or a prison sentence of up to a year. Cyber harassment carries a more hefty weight: $660 in fines and up to five years in jail.
Critics view the rules as the authoritarian march – part of government’s scheme to stifle freedom of expression and suppress online content disapproving Museveni’s government, especially youth, ahead of 2021 polls.
The central executive committee of Museveni’s ruling party, one of Africa’s longest ruling leaders, recently endorsed him as their sole candidate in 2021.
In the 2006, 2011 and 2016 elections, the government blocked or shut down social media and websites, ahead of and even during the polling period. (Source: Independent UK)