Democracy thrives on free speech and any attempt to curtail people’s ability to freely express themselves is nothing smack of dictatorial tendencies. Yoweri Museveni’s government in Uganda is tightening rules on online publishing ahead of the 2021 elections. Per the new rules, online publishers will be required to seek authorization from the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) to broadcast any information over the internet.
This latest move is one of many actions Museveni’s government has taken in the last five years to limit the rights and freedoms of Ugandans.
Museveni is a freedom fighter who turned despot. He was part of a rebellion that toppled the regime of the world’s notorious leader Idi Amin and Milton Obote before he captured power in the 1980s. He was hailed by Western governments in the mid-1990s as part of a new generation of Africa leaders who were exhibiting good democratic values.
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The New York Times said of Museveni: “He moves with the measured gait and sure gestures of a leader secure in his power and his vision. It is little wonder. To hear some of the diplomats and African experts tell it, President Yoweri K. Museveni started an ideological movement that is reshaping much of Africa, spelling the end of the corrupt, strong-man governments that characterized the cold-war era. These days, political pundits across the continent are calling Mr Museveni an African Bismarck. Some people now refer to him as Africa’s ‘other statesman,’ second only to the venerated South African President Nelson Mandela.” The former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, in 1997, also called Museveni a “beacon of hope.”
However, Museveni is no longer the president who was re-shaping the politics of Africa to end strong-man governments that characterized the cold-war era. He now has the playbook of Idi Amin, crushing any seeming dissent and opposition voices. And it appears no one can stop him. He is no longer the “beacon of hope” in Africa as once said by Albright.
The new rules on online publication follow a similar one that was issued banning political campaigning ahead of the 2021 elections in compliance with COVID-19 preventive measures.
“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,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
“Freedom of speech does not need a license.”
The new communication law is broad and ambiguous. In other words, it does not differentiate between mass media broadcasting and individuals sharing content online. The danger in this law is that social media influencers risk being punished for their publications that the government finds offensive. Besides social media influencers, bloggers and content curators are also under threat of this law.
“These 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,” according to Amnesty International.
Before you say my fears are unfounded, let’s take a detour to 2016. The Uganda election was conducted amidst a social media shutdown. The European Union described the highhanded social media shutdown as “unreasonably constrained freedom of expression and access to information.”
Under the guise of “national security”, the country’s main communications provider was ordered to block social media platforms. The nature of the “national security” threat social media posed was not defined, ambiguous and carefully worded to curtail free speech.
Let’s take another detour to 2018. The government introduced a social media tax to raise revenue on platforms such as Twitter, WhatsApp, Viber Facebook and Skye. The imposition of the tax reduced social media users from 47 percent to 38 percent, according to Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). In the end, the Uganda Revenue Authority failed to raise the expected revenue from the tax imposed.
One can see a consistent pattern to make free speech expensive. However, the actions of Museveni’s government are consistent with all other repressive regimes across the world. Just like he got way with the banning of social media platforms in 2018, he would likely get away this law requiring people who wish to publish online to get a license.
To stop Museveni in his tracks, there is a need to build a critical mass in Uganda to challenge him in the law courts and on the streets. It will be a long walk to freedom, but it is worth it in the long.
Besides building a critical mass, the opposition needs to form a coalition to contest the 2021 election. A fragmented opposition is unlikely to defeat Museveni, who, in addition to other rigging methods, has the country’s military on his side.
Uganda’s in the diaspora must also play a role in returning the country to a democracy. Diaspora groups have in past and present, contributed to widening the democratic frontiers of their country.
How is the licensing to be done? Are online publishers critical of the government going to be given a license to publish in Uganda? If they are refused a license, who do they appeal to? These are all lingering questions that the government is not forthcoming with answers.