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Uganda Expands Its Internet Clampdown, Stifling the Last Space for Free Speech

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Stella Nyanzi, a women’s rights activist and government critic, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for cyber harassment of President Yoweri Museveni, in court in Kampala, Uganda, Aug. 1, 2019 (AP photo by Ronald Kabuubi).

KAMPALA, Uganda—Pastor Joseph Kabuleta was arrested while drinking coffee in a Kampala shopping center, shoved in the back of a car and blindfolded. Held in police detention for several days in July, Kabuleta said he was tortured by officers, who beat him and drenched him in freezing water. His only crime was a Facebook post criticizing a senior military official, Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the son of President Yoweri Museveni.

Kabuleta’s case is not unique in Uganda, where Museveni has held onto power for decades by almost any means necessary. The pastor’s arrest was another example of how Ugandans are using the internet to protest Museveni’s 33-year-long regime, and the growing risks they face in doing so.

In August, the Uganda Communications Commission announced that social media “influencers” must pay a fee and register to be monitored by the state regulator. The declaration came just a week after Stella Nyanzi, a prominent opposition critic who once called the president “a pair of buttocks,” was sentenced to 18 months in prison for “cyber harassment.” Nyanzi had posted a poem to Facebook describing Museveni as a “dirty, delinquent dictator.”

The commission claims that increased regulation will prevent immoral content and hate speech, but critics see it as another blow to freedom of expression. They argue that the internet is the last remaining place for free assembly in Uganda. Now it is being censored as well.

“The spaces for demonstration, for challenging the government have been closed,” Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer in Kampala who previously defended Nyanzi, told World Politics Review. “The physical space is closed. The only space that is available to many people is the digital space.”

“The internet has become the new space of assembly and expression,” added Dorothy Mukasa, the executive director of the Uganda-based digital advocacy organization Unwanted Witness.

In 2013, the Ugandan government issued the Public Order Management Act, which made it illegal to host a demonstration without first notifying the police. Anyone who does not comply faces police brutality. When popstar-turned-presidential candidate Bobi Wine was arrested in the northern town of Arua last year, angry protesters spontaneously took to Kampala’s streets. One person was killed and several others injured in the ensuing clashes with police.

Traditional media is similarly restricted. The Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda detailed 163 cases of abuse against reporters in 2018, including 37 physical assaults. In May, the Uganda Communications Commission also ordered the suspension of reporters, producers and heads of programs from 13 radio and television stations for their coverage of Wine, claiming they had breached Uganda’s minimum broadcasting standards, under the Uganda Communications Act.

“Traditional media has been gagged by the state,” Mukasa said. “You have to say and do what pleases it.” Many reporters self-censor for fear of retribution.

It’s little surprise, then, that Ugandans have turned to the internet to discuss important social and political issues and even catch up on the news. “When I wake up, I am not watching my TV. I am going online to see what the debate is,” said Rosebell Kagumire, a feminist blogger and journalist in Kampala.

Under the Uganda Communications Commission’s new regulation, anyone who is making money off of his or her social media posts must now pay a $20 fee as part of state registration. Ibrahim Bbosa, a spokesperson for the commission, said in an interview that the requirement could ultimately expand to include any social media users with a large following.

Despite the new measures, many Ugandans will continue to use the internet to get their information in an increasingly restricted media environment.This isn’t the first internet regulation issued in Uganda. Online data providers, including news organizations, were forced to register with the Uganda Communications Commission in 2018. The commission then shut down the website for the Daily Monitor, one of Uganda’s leading papers, this past February, while investigating a complaint made by the speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga. The complaint claimed that the Daily Monitor had failed to register properly and threatened criminal charges against the paper.

Bbosa warned that any social media influencer who does not register under the new regulation risks having his or her account shut down as well. “If an investigation has been done, if a complaint has been registered, and initial assessment proves that actually the content you are carrying is inappropriate, and yet you are not registered, the first point of call is a shutdown,” he said.

The Daily Monitor incident is proof that media and communications directives can be wielded to serve state interests, according to Muthoki Mumo, sub-Saharan Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “There is a willingness to interpret regulations in a way that benefits the government to the detriment of critical speech,” Mumo told World Politics Review.

Ugandans must already pay a controversial tax to use platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, under an unpopular law passed last year. According to the Human Rights Network for Journalists, the tax reduced internet users by one third over the first three months it was in effect.

The law used to convict Nyanzi of “cyber harassment” last month, the Computer Misuse Act of 2011, can punish any internet communication deemed offensive. According to Unwanted Witness, the law led to 33 Ugandans being charged with cybercrimes or interrogated about online offenses between 2016 and 2018. The Uganda Law Society, a lawyers’ association, has also petitioned the Constitutional Court to declare sections of the act unconstitutional.

“When you criminalize offensive communication, you are criminalizing free speech and that is what they are trying to do,” said Kagumire, the blogger and journalist in Kampala, of the Computer Misuse Act.

Bbosa, the Commination Commission’s spokesman, has refuted similar criticisms that registering social media influencers with the state communications regulator will restrict speech. “Freedom of expression comes with limitations and these are provided for under the law,” he said. “The reason why countries have enforcement agencies like the police is because in the exercise of my rights I may actually deny you the exercise of your own rights, and somebody has to be able to moderate or arbitrate such a situation.” He invited anyone who disagrees with the new regulations to share their views.

Uganda’s police are prepared to enforce the law as it pertains to broadly defined cybercrimes. “We will continue policing [these offenses] provided the sections still stand under the Computer Misuse Act,” Fred Enanga, a spokesperson for the police, told World Politics Review. He also specifically denied the allegations that police tortured Kabuleta during his July detention.

Broader restrictions to press and internet freedom will likely intensify ahead of the contentious 2021 elections. Four years ago, the government blocked Twitter and Facebook on Election Day and ahead of Museveni’s inauguration.

Despite the new measures, many Ugandans will continue to use the internet to get their information in an increasingly restricted media environment—and to share their own thoughts online. “The regulation is not going to stop anybody from posting,” Kabuleta said. “All I have is my mouth and my writing skill. Nobody is going to take that away from me.”

Sophie Neiman is a freelance journalist based in northern Uganda, writing about politics, conflict and human rights.

—— AUTO – GENERATED; Published (Halifax Canada Time AST) on: September 04, 2019 at 08:48AM

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