Op-ed – UCC’s latest directive on online content producer registration arrives with a shadow

Computer surveillance

By Raymond Mpubani and Clare Muhindo

The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has doubled down on the registration of news websites and online broadcasters, requiring all providers of such services to register by 5 October, 2020.

The target services are blogs, online televisions, online radios, online newspapers, internet-based radios and TV stations, streaming radio and TV providers, and video on demand providers.

The directive was communicated through a public notice released on Monday. It does not present new regulations, but is a reminder of a similar directive issued in March 2018. In the previous notice, UCC gave a deadline of 2 April 2018 for all online data communication and broadcast service providers to apply for authorisation or risk being blocked by internet service providers.

April 2018 came and went without registration of all listed service providers and the threat of blocking was not effected. The latest notice is silent on possible repercussions for those who fail to heed the directive. Instead, it shines more light on how the Commission aims to regulate authorised services and, by implication, its motives.

To receive authorisation, an entity must provide “full and extensive” disclosure of its shareholding and financial structures and should ensure that these don’t change during the authorisation period. The authorisation will also be limited to the entity it was issued to and is not transferable without prior consent from the regulator.

In addition, UCC says authorised providers will have to ensure “content uniformity” between online and any print or offline versions. But the requirement is ambiguous: should uniformity be defined widely as the editorial focus of an online outlet or the broad themes in an editorial product? Or is the UCC asking that newspapers, for example, publish the same content online and in print versions? In practice, the latter is not realistic and disregards the flexibility of online platforms.

The notice also sets out public interest standards all authorised platforms will be required to meet. These include ensuring a wide range of sources and views, and availing a diverse range of information that is of “specific interest to all ethnic groups, gender, and persons with disabilities”. Content should also not distort facts and go “contrary to the public morality.”

The Commission also wants online content producers to have contracts specifying the terms and conditions of their employment.

So far, 48 online data communication and broadcast service providers are registered with the UCC, according to Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo, the authority’s acting Executive Director. Ms Sewankambo says regulation is aimed at upholding “our national values, protect our national identity, balance commercial and public interest, and oversee user redress mechanisms.”

She adds that the regulatior seeks to “foster parity among similar market players” by levelling the playing field, promote the vibrancy of local content, and protect the rights of players in the creative industry.

But many would be forgiven for suspecting that the motives of the regulator are geared towards gaining more control over online content producers and policing them, not the laudable reasons Ms Sewankambo mentioned on her Twitter feed.

Imposing new fees on an industry still in its infancy – the application fee for an annual authorisation is Shs100,000, regardless of size or revenue – is not how parity is fostered, and is a curious way of promoting “the vibrancy of local content”. UCC is also imposing roadblocks on fundraising mechanisms by requiring that entities seek approval – which is not assured – before making changes to shareholding and financial structures.

Many who first saw the directive interpreted it as a requirement of all operators of social media pages to seek authorisation before broadcasting. However, UCC’s spokesperson Mr Ibrahim Bbosa clarified in a twitter thread: “We do not intend to encroach on peer to peer communication. We are looking for online news establishments so that they can take on the regulatory burden just like their counterparts in the traditional media.”

“Broadcasting is regulated to ensure it follows established legal and regulatory framework, including broadcasting standards. But how do you ensure that everyone broadcasting online is aware of the applicable laws, regulations and standards? First, the need for identification,” he added.

Online publishers speak out

Ms Sarah Kagingo, the CEO Softpower News, says all online news sites were required to register and pay for a license in 2018, “which most of us did.” The license, she says was renewable at a cost of 20USD.

On UCC’s recent communication, Kagingo says, “UCC should have engaged us first and picked industry views as there are concerns about possible censorship.”

Adding: “When they say internet radio or internet TV, does that apply to vlogs, facebook pages or talk shows hosted on platforms such as YouTube that are not Ugandan? I think UCC should engage us on growth of the online industry that is already affected by OTT and high cost of data.”

Speaking to Daily Monitor on September 9, Mr Joseph Beyanga, the secretary general of the Uganda Broadcasters Association, said they needed more explanation on the terms and conditions and motive behind the action.

“There are many things that are not clear, from what I read. They need to be clear on what they mean by operator. Any industry needs to be regulated but those regulations should be those that grow the industry and not bring it down,” he said.

Possible implications of the directive

The directive is more like 2018’s social media tax and less like the tax incentives beloved by the Ministry of Finance and the presidency. The former is a regressive tax championed by the President because he believes social media is used for trading gossip; the latter are issued to ostensibly encourage the growth of important businesses.

In assuming the powers to decide whether a news website or online radio should operate in the country, the UCC is setting up itself as the arbiter of what is acceptable or not. The track record of the authority reveals nothing to reassure that this power will not be wielded against alternative political viewpoints. The UCC has always seemed more interested in controlling how the media report at the expense of doing actual regulation. Instead of thinking of progressive policies that will stimulate the development of online content producers, the UCC is coming up with regulations to control them.

Vague stipulations such as content that is “not likely to create public insecurity or violence” will most likely be weaponised against viewpoints that deviate from some official narrative. The UCC has also previously proved defamation, assuming the powers of a court of law, and ordered the suspension of websites in response to complaints from senior government officials. As such, one fears that policing the “distortion of facts” could be abused.

The best outcome is that this directive peters out like in 2018. Otherwise, the evidence suggests that it is another arrow in the government’s censorship quiver.

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Raymond Mpubani is ACME’s programme officer for research and media monitoring.

Clare Muhindo is ACME’s online content producer. @MissMuhindo

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

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