Saturday, April 23, 2011

Social media in Uganda is under attack

Kampala, 19th/April/2011; the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) is under pressure from security apparatus to block social media platforms as activists and politicians intensify their ‘walk-to-work’ campaign protesting high costs of fuel and other commodities.
According to the April 14th letter obtained by HRNJ-Uganda, the UCC has succumbed to the security pressure and directed the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to shut down face book and twitter platforms for 24 hours.
The Uganda Communications Commission was merged late 2010 with the Broadcasting Council  into one regulatory body that will oversee both communication and broadcasting matters in the country. It’s under the ministry of Information and Communication Technology.
In the same letter signed by Mr. Quinto Ojok, the Acting executive Director addressed to major providers of internet namely; Broad Band Company, Foris Telecom Company and Infocom limited, among others, stated that UCC was requested by security agencies to minimize the use of such platforms.
“ We have received a request from security agencies that there’s need to minimize the media that may escalate violence to the public in respect of the ongoing situation due to the demonstration relating to ‘Walk-to-Work’ mainly by the opposition in the country. As a stakeholder that has communication infrastructures that host media such as face book and twitter, the commission wishes to request for your indulgence in this matter” the letter reads apart.
The letter added that ISPs were required to block the use of face book and twitter for 24 hours as of now, that is: 14th April 2011 at 3:30pm to eliminate the connection and sharing of information that incite the public.
The Daily Monitor quoted the UCC interim boss Eng. Godfrey Mutabazi as saying that there was a miscommunication and that the letter wasn’t necessary. He nonetheless didn’t deny his office had sent out the letter
In the run up to the February 2011 general elections, the Uganda Communication Commission implemented a draft policy which is not a law to gag telecommunication sector.
Mr. Godfrey Mutabazi accompanied by a team from the regulatory body met industry players on 16th/Feb/2011 and issued specific warnings against sending messages that he said could instigate hatred, violence and unrest during the electioneering period.
He however warned that any provider who breaches guidelines that have been set for this service, which is mainly operated through cell phones, risks losing their operation licenses and would face instant closure.
On election day, 18th/Feb/2011 telecommunication service providers blocked to DemGroup text message relaying election related reports to their data centre established at Muyenga, a Kampala suburb in Makindye division.
Sector members told Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) during that time that there had been no consultation carried out with them.
“We doubt whether the actions of the regulators are under their mandate since there’s no law governing the merged institutions. We condemn in the strongest terms possible the use of illegal means to gag both telecommunication and internet sectors. Such actions must be challenged in courts of law” said HRNJ-Uganda Programmes Coordinator Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala.
He said that the draft policy was not drafted to stop incitement but to abuse the right to freedom of expression because it was very clear that the DemGroup messages were neither inciting violence nor threatening anyone. Some regulators denied having a role in blocking the messages and all shifted the unlawful actions to regulators.
HRNJ-Uganda has also documented instances where service providers passed on bio data of their clients to the National Resistance Movement which the party used for campaign and a number of calls were intercepted.
HRNJ-Uganda regards UCC’s actions as an abuse to freedom of expression in the country and a gross violation of the right to privacy as stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.
We call for the independence of Uganda Communication Commission from the executive.
For More Information Contact;
Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda)
Kivebulaya Road – Mengo Kampala Opp. St. Marcelino Pre. School
P.O.BOX. 71314 Clock Tower Kampala
Tel: +256-414-272934 / +256-414-667627

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