Uganda: Government to license online posts in fresh assault on freedom of expression

The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) on 7 September issued a public notice stating that anyone wishing to publish information online must be licensed ahead of a 5 October deadline. 

It is the latest blow to the right to freedom of expression in Uganda ahead of 2021 elections, following guidelines issued in June restricting public gatherings for electoral processes, in compliance with COVID-19 prevention measures. This means that election campaigning will only be allowed through media and social media platforms.

The requirement for people to seek authorisation before posting information online is retrogressive and a blatant violation of the right to freedom of expression and access to information.
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for East and Southern Africa

“The requirement for people to seek authorisation before posting information online is retrogressive and a blatant violation of the right to freedom of expression and access to information. With restrictions on public gatherings already in place, the Ugandan authorities are shutting off a vital channel for people to express their political opinions and share critical information about COVID-19,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

“Freedom of expression does not need a license.”

The Communications Commission cited Section 27 of the 2013 Uganda Communications Act, among others, which prohibits broadcasting content without a broadcasting licence. By applying this law to those sharing content on the internet and on social media platforms, the authorities are effectively criminalizing the right to freedom of expression online.

Freedom of expression does not need a license.
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for East and Southern Africa

The regulations cited are overly broad and ambiguous, and do not differentiate between media broadcasting and communications between friends. This means it is impossible for an individual to know what exactly is being regulated.

“These vague regulations will turn social media into minefield, with users likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law and may face prosecution simply for expressing their views. The Ugandan authorities must do away with these requirements and amend laws that are promoting online censorship. They should respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and access to information,” said Deprose Muchena.

These vague regulations will turn social media into minefield, with users likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law and may face prosecution simply for expressing their views.
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for East and Southern Africa

The 2016 Ugandan general elections took place amidst a government-ordered social media shutdown that European Union election observers said “unreasonably constrained freedom of expression and access to information”.

Just before those elections, the UCC had directed Uganda’s main communications providers to block access to social media platforms for “national security” reasons, which had not been defined.

Background

On 1 July 2018, the Ugandan authorities introduced a tax on social media use in Uganda to raise revenue from what they described as “gossip” on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Viber.

According to Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the social media tax reduced social media users from 47% to 38%. The Uganda Revenue Authority admitted in January 2020 that the tax had dismally failed to raise the revenue anticipated.