Uganda: Minister Tumwebaze's Plan to Filter Social Media Threatens Free Speech
16 June 2017
On May 28, Ugandans gathered at Fort Portal to commemorate the 51st World Communications Day. The day is meant to celebrate the role of communication globally. It was on this day when the Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Mr Frank Tumwebaze, laid out government's intention to curtail freedom of communication. According to Daily Monitor of May 31, the minister said there is a need to "filter" social media content on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, citing instances of people taking advantage of such platforms to "terrorise" the country. By referring to "filtering," the minister actually meant censoring free speech.
According to the UN, government action to curtail freedom of expression must be specifically tailored to address actual dangers that threaten national security. Instead of representing a focused and specific response, filtering all communications on these platforms is vague and over-reaching. Such a response would have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression hence hampering the free flow of information. Such actions would constitute immense interference to the fundamental right of Ugandans to seek, receive, and exchange knowledge, ideas, and opinions through the media of their choice, as laid out in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Uganda is a proud signatory.
At the May 28 event, Bishop Robert Muhirwa provided a personal example of why social media platforms like Facebook should be "filtered"-- someone had posed as him online and asked for money. However, proposal for such a broad and over-sweeping law is a wrong reaction to the situation for three main reasons: Firstly, such impersonations and fraudulent acts long precede the dawn of social media globally, and there are already criminal laws in place to respond to such actions.
Secondly, there are concerns regarding the transparency of the ICT ministry's actions in choosing how, when, and what content to "filter". A regulatory action that greatly impacts such a large percentage of Ugandans should be put forth by Parliament, not the Executive. Thirdly, the risk of taking away the fundamental right of freedom of expression far outweighs the alleged national security interest of "filtering" all content on social media platforms. If national security was the genuine reason for the regulation, then the ICT minister should propose a narrowly tailored solution, not a comprehensive censorship of all Ugandans on social media.
Uganda would not be the first African country to "filter" Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter in recent years. In fact, Uganda had its first taste of a social media blackout during last year's (2016) elections. Leaders in Zimbabwe, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Burundi and Ethiopia have all blocked social media access recently because of the power it provides to the ordinary citizens as well as political rivals to speak out freely.