Be afraid, the government is nosing around online

If you are a journalist working for independent media in Uganda, the police have probably summoned you for questioning and possibly even charged you in the courts. If not, you know colleagues who have. Over the years, it is newspaper and radio journalists who have faced the wrath of a duplicitous government – it preaches free speech and gleefully muzzles independent media at the same time. Now things are changing. The government is looking farther afield.

The police last week called in Mr. Timothy Kalyegira, owner of The Uganda Record, an online publication. The state is interested in his reports suggesting that al-Shabaab may have claimed responsibility for the deadly 7/11 bombings in Kampala but that does not make it true that they did the deed. In Mr. Kalyegira’s own words, his website makes the “insinuation or suggestion … that this could have been a state-orchestrated crime”. For that, detectives have not only interrogated him repeatedly, they have also searched his home and taken away his computer, his cell phone and other stuff. Why a man’s laptop and phone should be carried away for expressing an opinion defies logic. But not entirely. The investigators’ working theory seems to be that Mr. Kalyegira is working in concert with more sinister forces to trash the image of the Government of the Republic of Uganda. They want to know who his correspondents are.

“We are monitoring media by whatever description,” the officer in charge of the Media Crimes Department in the Uganda Police Force told this correspondent. Commissioner of Police Simon Kuteesa added: “It is not just the police. All national security organs are interested in media [content].”

Sure, but anyone who has read Mr. Kalyegira’s writings over the years would not bother with him, for the man loves being contrarian on just about every subject of national import. Besides, other Ugandans have also raised, although quietly, views similar to Mr. Kalyegira’s regarding the bombings. And after 9/11 in the United States, some Americans alleged that their government was behind the tragedy so as to find a reason to attack oil-rich Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and take control of the oil.

By going after Mr. Kalyegira, the government is lending credence to his claims. It is also helping spread them because now people are heading to the Uganda Record website to read the postings for themselves. If the government has nothing to hide, so the argument goes, it would let Mr. Kalyegira be. It would let his views, which he says are inspired by some unnamed Seer, compete with other views out there. He predicted apocalypse for the Great Lakes Region in 2008. No apocalypse came. Years ago the government tried unsuccessfully to shut down Radio Katwe. The website went on to run stories that make Mr. Kalyegira’s opinion pale completely in comparison. As of this week, that website has not been updated in more than 18 months. It is “disappearing” naturally.

The most significant aspect here is that the government is getting interested in what Ugandans are writing online – and it is doing something about it. The passing, in the immediate aftermath of the 7/11 bombings, of The Regulation of Interception of Communications Bill, will likely embolden the government to go after online work more aggressively. It will snoop around more, hacking into people’s emails in the name of ensuring national security.

Media observers in Uganda argue that the Kalyegira case is just the beginning. There will be more government interest in online content as more Ugandans start using the World Wide Web spurred by increased access to electricity and the presence of fibre optic technology, which is speeding up Internet connectivity and driving down prices. According to the Uganda Communications Commission, there were 27,590 Internet subscriptions with an estimated number of users standing at 2.8 million (9% of the population) in 2009 compared to 15,500 subscriptions and an estimated 1 million users in 2007. These numbers must be soaring given the raging market wars amongst service providers.

“The government has not had a systematic way of dealing with online content,” said Mr. J.B. Mayiga, the co-ordinator of the Uganda Media Development Foundation, a Kampala-based media training and advocacy body. “But the Kalyegira case maybe a precursor for something more concrete – a more specific law – because the government is not happy with people expressing themselves freely at any forum.”

Ms. Rachel Mugarura is one of Uganda’s foremost bloggers and says the events of last week may not readily have any chilling effect on online users. “I have no concerns,” she said. “There is very little political debate in the Ugandan blogosphere and there is no consistency.” She added that for many Ugandans, mostly younger urbanites, “blogging is an escape, so it is a little frivolous”. (Make your own assessment by visiting a website that aggregates Ugandan blogs).

For now, there may be merit in the government going after citizens’ online work in search of terrorists, and possibly paedophiles. But there is no merit in questioning someone and threatening him with sedition charges for openly expressing his views. The government is better off working efficiently to deliver goods and services, to respect human rights, to observe rule of law and to generally act in a manner that does not leave citizens ascribing evil to it.

About the Author: Bernard Tabaire is the ACME General Secretary. He is a former managing editor for weekend editions at the Monitor Publications in Kampala.


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Bernard Tabaire

Bernard Tabaire co-founder and Director of Programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence. He is a former managing editor for weekend editions at the Monitor Publications in Kampala and also a columnist with the Saturday Monitor.

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