Uganda creates unit to spy on social networks

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned about the Ugandan government’s creation of a team of experts to closely monitor social networks, fearing that it will be used to restrict freedom of expression and silence critics.

In a country where social networks are nowadays widely used to circulate news and views, do the authorities want to monitor better in order to punish better?

The Uganda Media Centre, the media regulatory authority appointed by the president, announced on 27 June that a team of state security officers and IT experts has been set up to scan profiles on Facebook and other social networks in order to find posts critical of the government and the nation.

Defending the special unit’s creation to an audience of citizen-journalists at a news conference, Uganda Media Centre executive director Ofwono Opondo said: “We have realised that social media users are bitter and depressed people who are always complaining on their pages about the government and everything in the country, but they rarely get responses from the targeted ministries.”

“Increasing surveillance in order to better track down any criticism of the government is in itself a violation of freedom of information, said Elodie Vialle, the head of RSF’s Journalism and Technology Bureau. This measure is all the more worrying in a country that is in the habit of silencing critical journalists.”

Social networks – new hunting ground for journalists

RSF is all the more concerned about the possible repercussions of this unit’s creation on the work of the media because the organisation has noted an increase in recent years in harassment of journalists critical of President Yoweri Museveni’s government.

TV reporter Gertrude Uwitware was kidnapped and badly beaten by unidentified assailants in April for posting a comment online in which she defended a well-known university academic accused of insulting the government. Uwitware was made to delete all of her Twitter and Facebook posts for being too critical.

The university academic, Stella Nyanzi, was herself arrested on a charge of online harassment and insults under the 2011 Computer Misuse Act, the law that was used in June 2015 to convict Robert Shaka, an activist accused of leaking classified government information on Facebook under the pseudonym of Tom Voltaire Okwalinga (TVO).

RSF fears that this law, which criminalizes the use of electronic communication to “disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person,” could be used to prosecute journalists identified by this new surveillance unit.

Ben Byarabaha, the editor of the Red Pepper newspaper, was accused of violating this law when he was interrogated on 20 June by the Ugandan police Media Crimes Unit in connection with a story about on the health of Uganda's Inspector General of Police.


Blocking social networks to silence criticism

The leading social networks were blocked in Uganda on the eve of President Museveni’s swearing-in for a fifth term in May 2016. Ugandans suddenly had difficulty in accessing Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, the three social networks routinely used by the country’s journalists to circulate news and information as it happens.

WhatsApp, in particular, is also used by journalists to discuss how they cover news developments and organize their work. The authorities said the blocking, which continued throughout the afternoon, had been carried out for reasons linked to national security.

When the authorities previously disconnected social networks during the presidential election on 18 February 2016, President Museveni said it was to prevent people “telling lies.” He added: “If you want a right, then use it properly.”

In May 2016, the authorities also threatened to close down broadcast media outlets that provided live coverage of opposition activities.

Uganda is ranked 112th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, after falling ten places in the space of a year.