Online freedoms hang in balance as we commemorate Internet Freedom Day #January 18th

Solomon Lubambula

Often people are only concerned with their offline rights, forgetting that their online freedoms are equally paramount especially as the world becomes one globe village via Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

Whereas many people especially the elites in the urban centers are getting onto the World Wide Web (www) through different internet platforms, many of them are oblivious of their rights and freedoms online. On the other hand are a majority of Ugandans who do not even know that access to the Internet is a right of its own.

As the world marks #January18th as Internet Freedom Day, the unwanted witness talked to some of the players on the status of the internet freedoms in Uganda.

The representative at the office of the High Commission for Human Rights Ms. Birigit Gerstenberg says, the first and key limitation is the lack of access to the facilities, in addition of the right to access Internet which is not enjoyed by all as it is supposed to be.

She is also, quick to observe the low usage of Internet in Uganda.

“Due to certain circumstances like poverty, education, many people do not have access to the internet. So, I think that is one of the main factors that really hamper internet freedom” said Brigit.

She, adds that for the time she has been in Uganda, she had not seen at any stage that either a page or access to interesting data have been prohibited or closed so she thinks the Ugandan society in terms of freedom of the internet quite has a good record.

She, however, contradict her argument above, when she says that she can’t go without mentioning the case of the Uganda Record, an online publication, that was shut down in 2010 by government and subsequently, its editor and publisher, a renowned Journalist whose case is still pending in courts of law, Timothy Kalyegira was detained over charges of criminal libel arising from publications made over the internet.

Comparing Uganda to other countries across the World, Birigit believes in general freedom of expression in Uganda is not that bad, though she admits that there some incidences, but the normal press and other entities of the civil society can express themselves freely.

The Human rights icon, on the other hand, observes that it becomes very difficult for the politicians especially the opposition figures to express themselves in a free environment.

She could not hide her emotions over the controversial Anti Homosexuality Act passed by Parliament against the LGBTI community in Uganda and the Public Order Management Act that gags Civil Society Organizations and opposition politicians against talking of the growing graft

She, however, applauds government for seeking to get into dialogue with such groups at least at the CSO level like the fruitful dialogue with the NGO Board and one can access information through the internet.

You can ask for any statement of anybody and you can Google and they will appear, so I would say Uganda has made efforts to keep that window open”

On the future of internet freedom in Uganda, Birigit is optimistic that if government puts in place the right laws, internet freedom will continue to be enjoyed with minimal and necessary regulations to control social ills, cyber crimes like child pornography among others.

She said that there can be legal restrictions for example child pornography and other prohibitive sites that are promoting crime. Birigit stresses that these things are legal.

Referring to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 19 and 20 on freedom of expression Birigit says, there are possibilities to legally restrain and limit the freedom of expression based in National security, on grounds of public morals, health and other concerns of the state.

I think these (possibilities for restriction) must be discussed by parliament also in a way of not over limiting freedoms but keeping freedom of expression working. by  putting limits knowing that there is jurisprudence of international and regional Human Rights bodies upon how you can limit the freedom of expression” -Birigit noted

Politicians speak out

Buikwe MP Dr Luluume Bayiga, argues that their right to privacy via the nternet is terribly abused by the government agents. Luluume who uses a lot of facebook, twitter and whatsup on his mobile phone, says as opposition politicians their online communication is always intercepted by the various state security agencies.

When asked how secure he feels while working online, Luluume said that he works in fear because his privacy online is usually easy to intercept.

“Yes I mean the right to privacy is under threat. It is very likely that hackers, even here at parliament am quite certain when they want to print my email they do it at ease and indeed they do it”-Luluume noted

The opposition lawmaker emphasized that government has all the capability to determine the information they want from any of his communications.

“They can download and print all previous communications not only on face book but also on  other internet platforms, Yes I know for sure that they have that capacity and they do espionage”-Luluume.

It is on this note that Luluume suggests enactment of relevant laws to ensure data protection whether on the internet or mobile phone in this era of eavesdropping.

“We want to ensure that we review some of these provisions such as the interception of communication, the Anti-terrorism Act  and others which infringe on personal privacy that they are amended or even introduce new laws to ensure that the right to privacy is guaranteed, that is what we must do” he suggested.

Journalists’ take

The threats for internet freedoms are not restricted to the politicians, or civil society activists, but equally to the Journalists, Kenneth Lukwago a radio journalist who regularly engages colleagues in debates on current affairs through facebook says his ideas and opinions posted on his facebook page, have been viewed as negative criticisms towards the current regime by the NRM politicians.

Kelly Daniel Mukwano from the Ifreedom Network Uganda urges civil society groups to put parliament to task to enact laws that do not in any way affect internet freedoms. Mukwano gives an example of the Anti-pornographyAct which he says may affect the enjoyment of one’s right to privacy and access to information online.

“Because if the Anti-pornography Act is passed for example, some of us need this information for instance the health workers may need to download the picture of sexual reproductive organs for purposes of teaching….but they are going to be taken on the wrong side of the law”-Mukwano explains

Mukwano observed tha civil society organizations need to focus at data security and maybe raise awareness on Internet governance in Uganda, because most people do not know about internet governance, yet it’s actually their right to use the internet.

Internet freedom’s rights activists weigh in

The Chief Executive Officer, Unwanted Witness Uganda, an organization focusing on internet freedoms Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebagala says the accessibility remains a big challenge to enjoyment of online freedoms.

He mentions that Uganda has the lowest internet bandwidth and speed in the region which further hampers internet access and utilization.

“Kenya’s internet speed and even that of Rwanda a small country is better than that of Uganda. And I think government is deliberately keeping the internet bandwidth and speed so slow” Said Ssebagala.

The passionate digital rights activist, stresses, that despite the limitations, Uganda is still ranked among the first ten countries with a reasonable number of Internet users in Africa.

After attending the Internet Governance Forum 2013 summit in Bali, Indonesia, Ssebagala said that to address the problem of internet accessibility there is need for a political will to put in place the necessary infrastructure.

According to Ssebagala the participants at the summit suggested that service providers are encouraged to merge to the extent that they use the same data cables or even opt for better satellite alternative to improve the speed and accessibility.

On average, Ssebagala said civil society organization advocating for internet freedoms need government support to put up infrastructure, and incentives to attract bigger companies that will close the existing gaps to eventually ensure the enjoyment of Internet freedoms and also benefit the entire economy.