Biometric and digital identity programs threaten independent journalism in Uganda- Report

A new report examining the impact of Biometric Digital Identity (BDI) programmes on independent journalism in Uganda has revealed emerging threats to the practice.

Biometric and digital identity are two interrelated fields that have gained significant attention in recent years. Digital identity is defined as the “data that uniquely describes a person or a thing” in the digital world. This data can include a person’s name, date of birth, government-issued identification numbers, and digital characteristics, such as IP address.

The study, conducted by African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) through a mixed-methods approach involving content analysis and interviews with journalists and media personalities, highlights how the implementation of BDI programs has led to increased surveillance and intrusion on journalists and media houses.

The report, part of a larger multi-region research initiative by Internews, sheds light on the implications of biometrics and digital identity systems on media freedoms and access to information.

The study reveals that Uganda’s BDI programs, through mass data collection exercises and advanced real-time monitoring capabilities, have bolstered the state’s capacity to engage in communications surveillance to easily track the movements of individuals, including journalists.

The report underscores the chilling effect on independent journalism, as journalists face threats to their lives due to the ease with which their personal data is collected, processed, and shared. Numerous journalists have reported receiving threats from anonymous sources in relation to their journalism work.

An editor from Acholi sub-region, quoted in the study, said: “It is now risky to vigorously pursue a story that portrays the government in a negative light or has an interest in it. Journalism is beginning to shy away from holding those in power to account because it’s easier to do other stories and keep you and your family safe.”

A Reporter from central Uganda said: “I was working on a security story in 2019 and before I even completed it an anonymous caller warned me not to publish it. Someone on the other side of the phone said I could easily be tracked and found if I published it. I had to abandon it.”

The study further shows that a significant number of journalists have resorted to self-censorship for fear of reprisals resulting from state surveillance and interception of their personal communications, particularly when covering sensitive investigative stories.

“Some media outlets have also cautioned their reporters to tread cautiously on reporting certain stories as it may make them lose business or be in bad books with the state. This has equally forced some reporters to take a back seat on issues that affect our country,” said a media manager from Teso.

Furthermore, journalists have encountered difficulties in accessing sources, especially whistleblowers, which severely undermines their ability to investigate and obtain information, particularly information controlled by government agencies.

To respond to gaps identified amongst media practitioners and the restrictions on critical reporting, investigative journalism, and identity protections, this report proposes the following recommendations:

  • The data protection authority should review the ongoing biometric digital ID collection programs to ensure that they comply with the principles of personal data protection, particularly as it pertains to the integrity and confidentiality of personal data preventing unauthorized sharing of personal data.
  • Journalists and media houses should be properly equipped with the requisite skills, tools, and knowledge to mitigate the effects of surveillance and interception of their personal communication, including the use of encryption, and two-factor (or two-step) authentication.
  • Civil society actors should work to support journalists and media houses to scrutinize the legality and transparency of existing BDI programs to ensure their adherence to data protection principles.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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