Yoweri Museveni, the dictatorially-inclined President of Uganda, is at it again.
Not content with introducing a social media tax to try and force his impoverished citizen’s off those internet platforms where opposition information can spread unchecked, his regime is now upping the ante even more with an online registration system.
Uganda’s online registration system
Since March 2018, Uganda’s internet regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), has forced some online publishers to register with the government and cough up a fee of US$20 for the privilege of doing so.
$20 may not sound like a lot but in a country where most workers will earn less than US$100 a month, it is a sizable amount of income for many.
But the Museveni regime is ramping up its registration programme. According to Voice of America, sites required to register with the regulator will now include a large number of the country’s news organisation and, perhaps even more troublingly, all social media influencers who command sizable followings too.
The UCC has started to define these people as “data communicators” and the clear implication is that it wasn’t to have a level of control over what information they are pushing out to their followers.
According to the Ugandan authorities, their registration system is intended to help the government clampdown on immoral and hateful content online. They used similar justifications when the social media tax was first rolled out.
Targeting the opposition
But it is no coincidence that those sites that seem to be falling under the new regime are the ones that are often used by those opposed to the Museveni regime to share information and organise protests, such as the nationwide ones that the social media tax caused when it was launched last year.
It is not yet clear exactly which sites and social media influencers will be affected by the new registration system. But users of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube with a significant following can expect to come under scrutiny.
The purpose of the registration system is clear, as the executive director of the Freedom of Expression Media Hub, Catherine Anite, told VOA’s Nightline Africa programme recently. It is to curb freedom of speech and freedom of expression in Uganda.
“It’s a very restrictive regulation,” she explained. “The freedom of expression is an essential right, and it is the cornerstone of any democratic society, which I believe Uganda is, because we have ascribed to these national, regional and international freedom of expression laws.”
As Anite pointed out, the rights to freedom of speech, press freedom, and freedom of belief are enshrined in Article 29 of the Ugandan Constitution.
However, despite this, online freedoms in Uganda have come under serious threat in recent years.
Uganda’s unconstitutional political crackdown
As well as the hugely controversial social media tax, Reuters has reported that between 2016 and 2018 no fewer than 33 Ugandans were arrested and charged with making impermissible online communications. The majority of these arrests related to opposition activities.
It is also unlikely to be a coincidence that the expansion in Uganda’s online registration laws come little more than a week after political activist Stella Nyanzi was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Her crime was to write a crude poem about the late mother of President Museveni.
For their part, the UCC has defended the new registration system as being necessary for upholding public morality. Their head of public relations, Ibrahim Bossa, told VOA, “Online publication can lead to circumstances like inciting the public, misinformation and, at times, theft.”
Neither he nor the UCC has provided any evidence to support these claims and his use of the term ‘misinformation’ usually means information that is critical of the Museveni regime in Uganda.
Even more worrying was his suggestion that the new registration system is just the first step the UCC is planning to take. He suggested that in the event of further issues, new measures would be rolled out.
Evading Uganda’s online controls
That threat means that it is becoming more and more informant for ordinary Ugandans to take steps to stay secure and private when online.
As we explained last year, Ugandan’s can easily evade the country’s social media tax by using a VPN to mask where you are connecting to the internet from.
VPNs will also help them to escape the clutches of the UCC’s online registration requirements too. By hiding your true location and encrypting all of your connections, using a VPN means the UCC has no way of telling where you are logging on from.
Uganda’s poverty means that VPNs could be expensive there too. But by choosing a VPN like IPVanish or StrongVPN, which offer up to 12 connections with a single account, they can split the price with friends and family and get premium VPN protections for less than the price of the social media tax.