The Government of Uganda should be open to constructive engagement about social media and its importance, human rights activists have said.
Speaking at a debate on the recent government-enforced social media blackouts, information technology specialist Michael Niyitegeka said the government has failed to appreciate social media media’s role as a platform of engagement. He said that as a result there is no conversation about the social media, only “a lot of knee-jerk reactions”.
The discussion organised and hosted by human rights organisation Chapter Four Uganda on Monday was the inaugural event of its Civil Rights Evening series. It came on the heels of government’s shutdown of social media; first on Election Day on 18 February and recently during President Yoweri Museveni’s swearing-in ceremony on 12 May.
“I don’t think there was justification for the social media shutdown, and particularly the last shutdown,” Mr Niyitegeka said.
However, Mr Fred Otunnu, the director of corporate affairs at Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), disagreed. UCC is the government body legally mandated to regulate communication services. He said the commission’s decision to block access to social media “was squarely because of security concerns”.
“It’s not our intention to clamp down on social media. Self-regulation has proved to be insufficient that’s why government agencies come in to disrupt and bring to order excesses on social media,” Mr Otunnu added.
This was an argument that few at the event were willing to buy.
Ms Sarah Kihika, a Chapter Four Uganda board member, proposed a legal amendment that would prevent UCC’s misuse of its mandate. She said the amendment would allow “court to weigh decisions to see if there is a genuine threat to security”.
“It’s not enough to say we are enforcing the law … there should be due process to ascertain the impact versus objective of any shut down [of social media],” she said.
Ms Kihika said government “should be tolerant to divergent views, be open to criticism as much as possible” and desist from restricting rights “based on conjecture rather than imminent threat to security”.
In response Mr Otunnu said UCC is aware that there is need for more engagement between government and social media users.
“The regulation of social media is necessary,” he said, “However the method in which government has done it has been a little bit clumsy. Owing to that fact, we need to review our legal framework so that it’s in tandem with social media development.”
While most speakers at the event called for less social media regulation, one person stood out by calling for more oversight.
Explaining why the government may have cause to block social media platforms, Mr Timothy Kalyegira, editor of Kampala Express, a Facebook-hosted newspaper, said “there is a lot of rubbish” on social media.
“The internet is in need of a managing editor of sorts. There are things people write and you get irritated, so imagine a government bedeviled with so much suspicion,” he said.
He however said if government boasts of the ability to contain insurgencies and urban terrorism, it should use the same tact and intelligence to get trouble makers on social media instead of shutting down the whole platform.
On the other hand, Mr Kalyegira downplayed assertions that social media can be used to influence and incite violence.
“There is a lot of passivity in Uganda. We are much more less of a threat to the state than the state might think. The State must understand that if it clamps down social media, it disrupts a lot of things,” he said.
About the Civil Rights Evening Discussion
The inaugural debate, titled How shall we speak? Making sense of the media ban and the social media blackouts in Uganda, brought together legal and media practitioners, civil society actors, ICT experts, government officials and some members of the general public. It was held at the Chapter Four Uganda premises in Kampala.
The organisers said the discussions will be held quarterly, with a focus on assessing the state of civic rights in the country.