Amnesty International protests UCC’s restrictions on online platforms

Amnesty International has protested the government directives requiring online publications to seek authorisation and licence from the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC).

The notice, which UCC issued on Monday (September 7), indicates that all people running a digital platform, such as blogs, online publications, online radios, video on demand, or online television for purposes of disseminating news and content on a commercial scale are required to have authorisation from the commission.

However, Amnesty International, in a statement issued on Wednesday (September 9), opposed the move, arguing it is an infringement on the freedom of expression.

"The requirement for people to seek authorisation before posting information online is retrogressive and a blatant violation of the right to freedom of expression and access to information.

"With restrictions on public gatherings already in place, the Ugandan authorities are shutting off a vital channel for people to express their political opinions and share critical information about COVID-19," Deprose Muchena, the Amnesty International's director for East and Southern Africa, said.

The international rights agency argues that such policies are not necessary, especially for a country that is in a political season during which citizens need as many communication platforms as possible, so as to express their views.

"It is the latest blow to the right to freedom of expression in Uganda ahead of the 2021 elections, following guidelines issued in June, restricting public gatherings for electoral processes, in compliance with COVID-19 prevention measures," Muchena said.

Amnesty International elaborated that freedom of expression does not require a licence as UCC is attempting to do. "The commission cited section 27 of the 2013 Uganda Communications Act, among others, which prohibits broadcasting content without a broadcasting licence.

"By applying this law to those sharing content on the Internet and on social media platforms, the authorities are effectively criminalising the right to freedom of expression online," Muchena said.

Amnesty International argued that the UCC regulations are overly broad and ambiguous and do not differentiate between media broadcasting and communications between friends, which means it would be impossible for an individual to know what exactly is being regulated.

"The vague regulations will turn social media into a minefield, with users likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law and may face prosecution simply for expressing their views.

The Ugandan authorities must do away with the requirements and amend laws that are promoting online censorship.

They should respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and access to information," Muchena said. He recounted the 2016 Uganda general election, which took place amidst government-ordered social media shutdown, which the European Union election observers said "unreasonably constrained freedom of expression and access to information". Amnesty also decried the Over the Top Tax/social media tax, which the government introduced in 2018.

"According to Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the social media tax reduced social media users from 47% to 38%. The Uganda Revenue Authority admitted in January 2020 that the tax had dismally failed to raise the revenue anticipated," Muchena said.

In Africa, it is only Uganda and Zambia, which have taxes that limit access to the internet. In Benin, a similar tax had been introduced, but the government dropped it after protests.

This article was published by New Vision.

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