The number of Ugandans with internet connectivity keeps on increasing, especially because of the influx of cheap handsets with internet access from China. Today, over 990,000 Ugandans have Facebook accounts. This though, is still a drop in the ocean keeping in mind that the country has a population over 35 million. By comparison, almost 20 million have access to mobile phones with SMS capabilities. The current Ugandan regime seeks to have direct control over all these vital information dissemination tools.
The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), a government arm set up as a regulator of the telecommunications industry, is the government’s barking dog in this endeavour, and has often been let loose to abuse digital freedoms in the country. Among other things, a directive was issued to all telecom companies to register phone and data SIM cards they sell, capturing all details about the buyer. The government also uses the option to transfer money via mobile phones, offered by many telecom companies, to monitor activities of opposition politicians and activists. With the enactment of the Public Order Management Act (POMA) into law recently, the Ugandan police has set up several bureaus in its different departments to monitor the social media, calls and SMS of individuals from the opposition and civil society, as well as journalists and other activists. POMA is a draconian law that has been enacted to limit the movements and gatherings of people without police permission, among other harsh provisions.
Since the government of Uganda liberalised the economy in the 1990’s, several telecommunication companies and other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been offering telecom services in tandem with the international developments in that industry. Today, the biggest ISPs are the South African MTN, the French Orange, Bharti Airtel, which has now merged with Warid Telecom, and the indigenous UTL. During the riots of 2009 and 2011, UCC asked all ISPs to block emails, SMS and Facebook messages that had any political content or that mentioned names of certain government and opposition politicians. Although some protested, they had to give in or risk losing their operation licenses in the country. It should be noted too that all the telecommunication companies in the country have political godfathers high up in the echelons of the current government. With this arrangement, ISPs are easily beaten into the “correct line.”
Among the different social media channels available today like Whatsapp, Twitter and e-mails, Facebook remains one of the most widely used and fastest growing social media channel. All others are used basically by what one could term as Uganda’s elite class. The Ugandan police, on behalf of the government, recently asked Facebook to provide them with information held about all Ugandans with registered accounts – a request Facebook turned down. Many Ugandans are today able to air out their grievances with government through Facebook, and this is one of the highly monitored social media outlets by the government. Critics have used this outlet to discuss issues with the public, and the regime is not happy with it. The government manoeuvres clearly indicate that it would very much love to have total control of the social media channels, but it is hampered by the fact that all firms controlling these channels are abroad and out of its reach and patronage.
Take the case of the now famous Tom Voltaire Okwalinga (TVO), a Ugandan blogger who is also very active on Facebook. He has written extensively about the abuses of government, and he is one individual the Ugandan government would pay any price to identify and apprehend. Despite the government’s efforts to identify him and the number of security operatives that have been deployed to apprehend this individual, TVO has developed a big following on Facebook, usually commenting on his exposés.
His case shows how, in the nutshell, the Ugandan government is trying to gain an upper hand in controlling and curbing digital freedoms in the country.