Uganda: Mutabazi Issues Polling Day SMS Rules


As Ugandans prepare to head to the polls in less than 48 hours, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has asked bulk short message service providers not to allow their platforms to be used as a channel for what it said is information likely to incite.

The UCC warned last week that any provider who breaches guidelines that have been set for this service, which is mainly operated through cell phones, risks losing their operation licences and would face instant closure.

UCC interim Executive Director Godfrey Mutabazi accompanied by a team from the regulatory body met industry players in the morning and issued specific warnings against sending messages that he said could instigate hatred, violence and unrest during the electioneering period.

It is not yet clear if these guidelines have been prompted by promises by some sections of the political opposition to mobilise protests if the Electoral Commission, which they denounce as an extension of the ruling party, attempts to manipulate the result of the elections.

UCC called the meeting in a letter which said: "You will recall that sometime back [a] similar concern was raised and consultations were held with most of you in order to come up with measures to address the problem."

According to a source within UCC, the commission first tried to quietly coax individual service providers against transmitting certain text messages. But some big players in the industry refused, insisting that the UCC puts this demand in writing.

During last week's meeting, the short codes service providers were given guidelines on the kind of text and fax messages to avoid sending to the public. They were also cautioned against sending messages with negative tones and were asked to cooperate with law enforcement organs in the event anyone tries to force the providers to do otherwise.

An industry source, who attended the meeting, however, said UCC did not say anything specific about SMS text messages being used as a mobilisation tool to rally peaceful protests.

Recently, an SMS text message drawing parallels between the mass uprisings, which ultimately led to the toppling of the dictatorial regimes in Tunisia and Egypt to Uganda's own situation, has been circulating, causing a stir in certain circles.

Protesters in Tunisia and Egypt used SMS text messaging and social media networks to mobilise civilians to protest against their unpopular governments. Some providers emerged from the meeting saying UCC was threatening them. Speaking to Daily Monitor, a representative of one service provider who preferred anonymity for fear his employer could be targeted, said the UCC was trying to gag Ugandans' constitutional rights to freedom of information and expression.

But Mutabazi denied this suspicion. "We are not threatening anybody," he told The Monitor last week. "Our duty is to remind providers to stay within the law." Mutabazi added that the commission was acting within its mandate as regulator. "We, as a commission will be meeting broadcasters on Thursday," he said.