By Benjamin Rukwengye
In March 2018, the governments of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, as if acting in tandem, issued new rules requiring the licensing of social media and online content creators.
Tanzania published its Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, 2018, establishing mandatory licensing of all bloggers, online forums and online radio and television. The regulations that apply to Tanzania residents, Tanzanian citizens outside the country and non-citizens of Tanzania residing in the country, also impose strict rules on the content they produce.
Kenya followed in the same vein with its Film Classification Board requiring the licensing of people who post videos meant for public consumption, including videos posted on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms.
The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), which classifies online publishers, online news platforms and online radio and television operators as “data communication service providers”, issued a public notice the same month informing operators to apply to obtain authorization for their work. UCC said it would start enforcing the rules in April 2018 by sanctioning any non-compliant data communication service providers and where necessary, directing internet service providers to block access to unlicensed websites and streams.
The three East African countries are not alone in their attempts to regulate social media and online content. Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and a host of countries across the world have either debated or created legislation to regulate online spaces.
For most of these countries, the stated primary aim of social media regulation is to prevent potentially harmful practices such as hate speech, cyber-bulling and revenge porn, as well as to curb copyright infringement and the distribution of politically sensitive information. However for governments with records of abuse of rights to freedom of expression and freedom of information, these measures have been received with much suspicion and in some cases, fear.
In Uganda for instance, news this month that UCC is doubling down on its regulation of online publishers, which came shortly after university lecturer Stella Nyanzi was convicted for cyber harassment, was cause for alarm for many social media users. Adding to this consternation was information that the regulation would extend to “influencers on Ugandan social media and others with large commercialized online followings”. The influencers, according to UCC, will be mandated to pay a USD20 fee to operate.
Speaking to Reuters, UCC spokesperson Ibrahim Bbosa said online publishers and social media influencers are “pushing out content which could easily violate the known parameters of morality, of incitement, of ethnic prejudice or not be factual.”
In an interview with Voice of America, Bbosa said licensing social media influencers would not only help in establishing necessary controls, but also provide rules for those who use platforms like Facebook for commercial purposes.
“They actually disseminate information to wide audiences. The content they put out there is of importance, so we say they should register,” Bbosa told VOA.
Freedom of expression advocates have not taken the news lying down.
Catherine Anite, the Executive Director of Freedom of Expression Hub, told online news publisher PML Daily that the regulation was “restrictive.” She argued that as free and democratic society, Uganda should not introduce “clawback clauses that come in form of polices and other restrictive laws”.
Washington DC-based watchdog organisation, Freedom House, similarly raised a red flag, stating: “The UCC’s registration requirements, forcing many who publish online content to pay a yearly fee and register for monitoring purposes, are a clear infringement of Ugandans’ constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech and expression.”
Jon Temin, director of Africa programs at Freedom House, said “requiring people to pay a fee to post on online platforms, as well as monitoring by the government, discourages online activity, stifles free expression, and creates new opportunities for government interference in citizens’ speech.”
Freedom House urged UCC to “abandon the restrictions imposed by the regulations, and to work to protect, rather than curtail, individual freedoms.”
Other activists contend that UCC’s regulations go against the spirit of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Charter on Broadcasting, the African Platform on Access to Information Declaration and the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms.
The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedom states: Everyone has a right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds through the Internet and digital technologies and regardless of frontiers.”
It adds that: “The exercise of this right should not be subject to any restrictions, except those which are provided by law, pursue a legitimate aim as expressly listed under international human rights law (namely the rights or reputations of others, the protection of national security, or of public order, public health or morals) and are necessary and proportionate in pursuance of a legitimate aim.”
As the push-back by campaigners continues, the resolve of UCC to enforce its regulations grows.
A recent post on the UCC blog states that there is “a need for specific guidance on the regulation of online activities, and the protection thresholds of online communication.”
It adds that “given the limitation of traditional media policy and regulation with regard to social media our focus is more on the content that is transmitted over these platforms than the actual platform,” concluding that “any form of social media regulation must, as the Constitution of Uganda demands, balance both the individual right to freedom of expression vis a vis the human rights and freedoms of others, and the public interest.”
The authoritarian march continues: Uganda to register, monitor social media influencers. Between 2016 & 2018 at least 33 Ugandans have either been summoned & interrogated or charged with “online offences”.https://t.co/XQ3gU7CRTR
— Charles Onyango-Obbo (@cobbo3) August 8, 2019
So the government is moving a bill to regulate and control what ever is posted on social media .🙄🙄🙄
Like will they die if they leave us alone ?! It all started with Ott and now this ?!☹️☹️
OH UGANDA MAY GOD🎶 🙌🙌
— Mukiibi Emmanuel (@MukiibiEmma2) August 15, 2019
Some of the leading personalities in Uganda’s social media are adding their voices to the debate. They say both the licensing and fee are an attempted clamp down on government critics.
Bernard Olupot [@Beewol], says the idea of registering influencers and levying a tax on them is a quick way for the regime to “gag people and make money while at it. It is despotism, tyranny, abuse of human rights.”
For Pius Enywaru[@enywaru], a blogger and co-founder of Fastlane Media, UCC’s regulations are retrogressive. He says, “UCC hasn’t done much to create a good playing ground for influencers to do their work and it hasn’t been supportive.”
“It’s very unfair that UCC wants to ruin a promising avenue for employment for the youth even before it fully kicks off,” he adds.