Gender dynamics need to be addressed in communications surveillance in Uganda

4 December 2014

By Dorothy Okello, Cleopatra Kanyunyuzi, and Winnie Mbabazi for WOUGNET

In 2000, Uganda was recognised as one of the most liberal telecommunications markets in Africa and one in which the number of mobile subscribers exceeded fixed-line subscribers.

By 2013, it was estimated that 39% of Ugandans were using mobile phones, and 17% were daily users of the internet – primarily accessing the internet via mobile devices. Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa with an estimated population of 35.4 million. Females represent 49.9% of the population, while 49% of the population is 14 years old or younger.

This means that while Uganda’s population is fairly balanced by gender, it is also a very young population with a potential affinity for the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs). Uganda has an ICT Development Index (IDI) score of 1.81, which is below the world average IDI of 4.35.

IDI is a reflection of three ICT development drivers, namely, infrastructure and access to ICTs, level of ICT use in the society, and impact resulting from efficient and effective ICT use.

Policy and political background

Uganda has witnessed tremendous growth in the ICT sector, with the expansion of ICT applications and services including information generation and dissemination, mobile money, and innovative mobile apps – particularly in the agriculture and health sectors. The ICT policy and regulatory environment has also evolved from a focus on promoting widespread access of ICTs to a focus on management of computer/mobile usage and internet freedoms. Examples of Uganda’s ICT policies and regulations include the National ICT Policy (2003), Access to Information Act (2005), National Information Technology Authority Uganda Act (2009), Regulation of Interception of Communications Act (2010), Electronic Signatures Act (2010), Computer Misuse Act (2011), Electronic Transactions Act (2011), and Uganda Communications Commission Act (2013).

Other acts that have implications on ICT usage and surveillance include the Anti-Terrorism Act (2002), which gives security officers powers to intercept the communications of a person suspected of terrorist activities and to keep such persons under surveillance; the Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014), which outlaws the use of “electronic devices which include
internet, films, and mobile phones for purposes of homosexuality or promoting homosexuality”; and the Anti-Pornography Act (2014), which mandates a Pornography Control Committee to “expedite the development or acquisition and installation of effective protective software in electronic equipment such as computers, mobile phones and televisions for the detection and suppression of pornography.”

The Uganda Communications Commission is also to conduct a study with a view to ensuring “responsible use of social media and the internet” through regulation of social media content and internet usage.

Communications surveillance in Uganda: Cause for concern?

In March 2014, the media in Uganda were flooded with stories of the fate of the country’s prime minister, Amama Mbabazi. According to one newspaper, an opposition politician was noted as having remarked how the prime minister “seems to be the first victim of a repressive law that clearly violated the right to privacy.”

The comments arose when private conversations between the prime minister and his wife that had been allegedly secretly recorded were played back at a caucus meeting of the ruling party to which the prime minister belongs. The “repressive law” was the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act (RIC Act, 2010) which had been tabled as a bill to the ruling party caucus by Mbabazi himself while he was security minister in 2007. The RIC Act provides for “lawful interception and monitoring of certain communications in the course of their transmission through a telecommunication, postal or any other related service or system in Uganda.” It should be noted that the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda 1995 under Article 27 states that “[n]o person shall be subjected to unlawful search of the person, home or other property of that person; or unlawful entry by others of the premises of that person,” and that “[n]o person shall be subjected to interference with the privacy of his home, correspondence, communications or other property.”

Furthermore, Article 29 (a) states that “every person shall have the right to freedom of expression and speech which includes freedom of the press and other media.” In the absence of a data protection authority, complaints that arise out of issues concerning the abuse of privacy are currently handled by the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC).

The incident involving the prime minister highlights why there is growing concern over the governance and regulation of communication surveillance, and how it is being used to infringe on one’s right to privacy in Uganda. Because this case affected a high-ranking Ugandan official, the question is, how safe is the ordinary Ugandan? And from a gender activist perspective, what are the gender concerns in the emerging policy and regulatory environment? Two recent studies on internet freedoms in Uganda were conducted by Unwanted Witness and Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). While both studies review the communications surveillance environment in Uganda, there is no specific focus on issues of concern by gender. However, both studies did raise various concerns that are relevant to women’s use of the internet and social media.

This report was originally published as part of a larger compilation, which can be downloaded from GISWatch.org

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