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ISPs harassed, told to shut down Facebook and Twitter for 24 hours

(HRNJ-Uganda/IFEX) - Kampala, 19 April 2011 - The Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) is under pressure from security apparatus to block social media platforms as activists and politicians intensify "Walk to Work" campaign actions protesting the high cost of fuel and other commodities.

In late 2010, the UCC was merged with the Broadcasting Council into one regulatory body that oversees both communication and broadcasting matters in the country. It falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology.

A 14 April 2011 letter obtained by Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) indicates that the UCC has succumbed to the security pressure and directed Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to shut down the Facebook and Twitter platforms for 24 hours.

The letter, signed by Mr. Quinto Ojok as the Acting Executive Director and addressed to major Internet providers - namely Board Band Company, Foris Telecom Company and Infocom limited, among others - stated that the UCC had been asked by security agencies to minimize the use of such platforms.

"We have received a request from security agencies that there is a need to minimize the media that may escalate violence in respect of the ongoing situation due to the demonstration relating to the 'Walk to Work' initiative, mainly by the opposition in the country. As a stakeholder that has communication infrastructures that host media such as Facebook and Twitter, the commission wishes to request your indulgence in this matter," the letter reads in part.

The letter added that ISPs were required to block the use of Facebook and Twitter for 24 hours as of 3:30pm on 14 April, to prevent the sharing of information that could incite the public.

The "Daily Monitor" quoted the UCC interim boss Eng. Godfrey Mutabazi as saying that there was a miscommunication and that the letter wasn't necessary. He nonetheless did not deny his office had sent out the letter.


BACKGROUND:

A few days prior to the February 2011 general elections, the UCC implemented a draft policy to gag the telecommunication sector.

Executive Director Godfrey Mutabazi, who was accompanied by a team from the UCC, met industry players on 16 February and issued specific warnings against sending messages that he said could instigate hatred, violence and unrest during the election period.

He however warned that any provider who breaches guidelines that have been set for this service, which is mainly operated through cellphones, risks losing their operation licenses and would face instant closure.

On election day, 18 February 2011, telecommunication service providers blocked a DemGroup text message relaying election related reports to their data centre established at Muyenga, a Kampala suburb in Makindye division.

Sector members told HRNJ-Uganda at the time that no consultation was carried out.

"We doubt whether the actions of the regulators are under their mandate since there's no law governing the merged institutions. We condemn in the strongest term possible the use of illegal means to gag both the telecommunication and internet sectors. Such actions must be challenged in courts of law," said HRNJ-Uganda Programmes Coordinator Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala.

He said that the draft policy was not drafted to stop incitement but to regulate the right to freedom of expression because it was very clear that the DemGroup messages were neither inciting violence nor threatening anyone. Some regulators denied having a role in blocking the messages and all shifted the blame for the unlawful actions to regulators.

HRNJ-Uganda has also documented instances where service providers passed on biodata of their clients to the National Resistance Movement, which the party used for campaign purposes, and a number of calls were intercepted.

HRNJ-Uganda regards UCC's actions as an abuse of freedom of expression in the country and a gross violation of the right to privacy as stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

The organisation calls for the independence of the UCC from the executive.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
What other IFEX members are saying
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