© 2016 Oryem Nyeko

On Uganda’s social media blockade…

This past week, Uganda’s election process has been awash with (among other things) news reports of users of Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and Mobile Money being blocked from using them. The blocking of the social media platforms (and money-sending Mobile Money) was the result of an order by the Uganda Communications Commission to internet service providers to protect against a “threat to Public Order and Security” (per an SMS sent by phone network MTN to its customers on Election Day, 18 February).

The UCC as it is today was established in 2013 under the Uganda Communications Act (also known as the UCC Act) merging its previous version with the Broadcasting Council. It serves a regulatory role by coordinating, monitoring and licensing broadcasters and communications service providers such as the networks that are responsible for internet services in the country. It has the power to issue and revoke licenses for service providers. Notably it is also, according to the Act, characterized by its independence “of any person or body” (Article 8).  In other words, in Uganda’s communications sector the UCC is the top dog.

So was the block justified?

The Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights didn’t seem to think so:

Of all the issues that are pertinent to human rights in the context of election, one is particularly important for the UN human rights office and that is the action of the UCC to disable and disallow access to social media platforms including Whatsapp on the day of election. We consider this an affront to the freedom of expression and particularly in the context of elections this impacts on the democratic process and the election itself. The access to information and expression is an ingredient of election and the fact that the social media platform is disallowed by the Government of Uganda on the day of election impacts on the free elections in Uganda.

In this context, an interesting provision of the UCC Act is Article 56 which provides that:

An operator shall not deny access or service to a customer except for nonpayment of dues or for any other just cause.

Note the qualification which leaves room for interpretation as to what constitutes “just cause”. However, the only real reference to “public order and security” in the Act comes in the fourth schedule of UCC Act which provides minimum broadcasting standards for broadcasters. (Broadcasters are defined as “licensed person who packages and distributes or distributes television or radio programmed services for reception by subscribers or the public, regardless of the technology”).

A broadcaster or video operator shall ensure that—

(e) where a broadcast relates to national security, the contents of the broadcast are verified before broadcasting.

As it stands, the block seems to have backfired. Savvy Ugandans responded to it by downloading VPN applications that hide their IP addresses and allow them to access the blocked services. Still, the whole thing provides an interesting case study for the intersection of ICT law, communications and human rights. Will Uganda go the way of China and Bangladesh whose governments have sought to restrict both social and traditional media online? And if it does, what does it mean?

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One Comment

  1. Ugandan
    Posted 21 February 2016 at 7:56 pm | #

    Well written. I’m proud of the way my fellow Ugandans stood up for their right to freedom of expression and right to access information in the reactions that followed on Twitter and Facebook after they platforms were blocked.