Photograph — Time Magazine

The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) wants all “data communicators” – digital news platforms, publishers, influencers and celebrities with a huge following on social media registered with a fee of $20 (73,800 UGX) so that they are licensed and their activities can be monitored, and controlled. This follows closely on the heels of the arrest and imprisonment of Stella Nyanzi, a university lecturer, researcher and activist who publicly criticised President Museveni in a Facebook post.

This policy was initially implemented in March 2018, only now it has been expanded to include social media influencers, celebrities and even prominent journalists. According to UCC Spokesperson, Ibrahim Bbosa, the growing entity of online publishers and content developers has made this policy necessary “so that they are mindful of the law and regulations as they publish their content to the public.” 

But critics have deemed the policy restrictive, saying it is a move to silence opposing voices of the government. “It’s a very restrictive regulation. The freedom of expression is an essential right, and it is the cornerstone of any democratic society,” Catherine Anite, Executive Director, Freedom of Expression Media Hub, told VOA. “Uganda is a democratic society. So if the constitution gives the right to enjoy the freedom of expression, there shouldn’t be the clawback clauses that come in the form of policies and other restrictive laws.”

Dorothy Mukasa of Uganda’s digital rights watchdog, Unwanted Witness, shares Anite’s stance on the policy, describing it as an infringement on the rights of people to freely express themselves. “People are able to express themselves well when they know that somebody is not watching over them,” she told Reuters. Unwanted Witness reports that in a space of two months this year, the police arrested seven internet users particularly journalists for allegedly criticising Museveni’s government via social media.

In recent years, the Ugandan government has been committed to enacting cyber laws and policies that limit internet access and free speech whilst promoting surveillance and censorship towards dissent. Critics say it is Museveni’s way of reining his youthful population as they are clearly against his continued grasp on power. In May 2018, the government imposed a tax on the use of social media – a daily fee of  200 UGX ($0.05) to access popular social media platforms.  

Like the social media tax, this license registration fee of 73,800 UGX is strategically restrictive since not everyone will be able to afford it and may be forced to stay offline. So far, the UCC says over forty online publishers have registered and received licenses to operate. 

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