Seeding Change: Uganda-based organisation Unwanted Witness on promoting online inclusion of the most vulnerable

Image: The Unwanted Witness team during the launch of the ID system report.

By APCNews

Lately, a lot of our work to speak truth to power has focused on addressing the human rights concerns of the new digital ID system project. The system clearly shows how technology can exacerbate already existing inequalities among vulnerable communities. 

In 2012, with violence and repression of freedom of expression spreading in the aftermath of the presidential elections in Uganda, a group of Ugandan bloggers, writers and human rights defenders founded Unwanted Witness (UW), an organisation focused on protecting internet freedoms in the country. Since then, they’ve been working “to put the power of change in the hands of citizens through the internet and online media.”

Lately, putting the power of change in the hands of citizens has involved addressing the human rights concerns posed by a new foundational digital ID system introduced with support from major international organisations including the World Bank. The system, which Uganda is among the first African countries to introduce, came with the promise of reducing fraud and corruption, citizens’ easy access to government services, inclusion, empowerment and good governance. However, Unwanted Witness and other civil society organisations have denounced it as clogged with corruption, delays and errors, and for being inaccessible to poor communities, which has increased exclusion among the most vulnerable from access to health care, communication, social protection and education. In other words, the system offers “a cocktail of discrimination.”

Even though its existence and activities directly impact the enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms of all Ugandans, the fact that the system is positioned as a national security matter has exonerated it from public scrutiny. To better understand what this entails, APC talked to UW’s executive director Dorothy Mukasa on human rights online in Uganda, the region and beyond.

You’ve been working on defending freedom of expression for over a decade now. What would you say is the biggest threat to this freedom in the country (and in the African region) today?

I would say the biggest threat to freedom of expression in Uganda, and in Africa as a whole, is the withering democracy under the growing digital authoritarianism. Digital authoritarianism is being promoted as a way for repressive governments to control their citizens through technology. Over the years, we have witnessed how civic spaces are shrinking, including through internet shutdowns, especially during elections. There is online surveillance, mandatory registration of bloggers, arrests for journalists and anti-government critics, imposing taxes on social media… All of this creates a very challenging environment.

In Uganda, the state is increasing its crackdown against dissenting voices online. In just two months, a dozen people were arrested, tortured or forced into exile for social media posts, including journalists, poets and average internet users. At the same time, those who choose to conduct peaceful demonstrations are often brutally confronted by law enforcement officers. 

You mention the importance of “speaking truth to power”. What does this mean in the Ugandan context? How do you do this?

Lately, a lot of our work to speak truth to power has focused on addressing the human rights concerns of the new digital ID system project, which clearly shows how technology can exacerbate already existing inequalities among vulnerable communities.

We recently launched a series of in-depth community stories highlighting the impact of the system on people’s rights and dignity. We also shared the series widely, including on social media, through Twitter chats, etc., to generate public discussion and experience sharing from individuals who had interfaced with the ID system.

On our live radio talk shows, we talked about lived experiences of vulnerable Ugandans affected by the ID system, as captured by our research. The talk show on Central Broadcasting Services (CBS FM), with the station’s audience of approximately six million people, reached the regions of Central, Eastern, Southern and portions of Western Uganda. The talk show provided instant feedback as the listeners had an opportunity to call in to ask questions, comment and share. 

The title of your ID system project puts the focus on reclaiming dignity. How does the system compromise people’s dignity?

It does, in many ways… especially for older people benefiting from the government’s lifesaving social protection programme. Those whose biometrics have been rejected by the system are excluded from accessing the lifesaving cash, left to live an impoverished life.

The system has also contributed to unemployment among young people, who amount to over 70% of the country’s population. Pegging access to employment in public service to the national ID system continues to push young people into indecent livelihood. 

There’s more background on this in our policy position paper about Uganda’s ID system and international human rights law, which was the key activity of the project, where we unveiled critical information about the system, its practice and the law behind it.

Tell us more about the impact of this project so far. Can you already see some results?

In a bit over a year, with the help of APC’s small grants, we’ve achieved great strides, including saving millions of vulnerable communities from being excluded from accessing COVID-19 vaccines due to the ID policy on vaccine access imposed in 2021. We’re now using the achievements to further research lived exclusion experiences of the ID system, especially on the right to health. We’re doing some of this research in collaboration with the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project at New York University Law School.

The policy brief greatly contributed to bridging the information gap. It acted as a guiding tool for the different public and media campaigns that were conducted throughout the project. We were also invited to make a submission to the thematic report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. 

All this work seems to have awakened the government agency charged with ID registration and issuance, the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA). They have moved to communities and delivered IDs at the lowest local government unit level. NIRA has introduced community registration camps for targeted community registration and delivery of already processed IDs, and reached older people who are unable to travel long distances. All of this was meant to bridge the service delivery gap, as one of the concerns raised both within the policy brief and in the documented stories. 

We also plan to monitor how the system is being applied during elections, as the government continues to promote the ID system as the single source of identity verification, including in determining eligible voters. 

While you address the ID system, you’ve continued to focus on the key issue of fighting internet shutdowns. What is the status of this today?

Internet shutdowns are a repressive tool that has been increasingly used in Africa, with a rising record of 26 shutdowns in 2021. Uganda has disrupted the internet for two consecutive elections, and some social media platforms like Facebook have never been restored, so citizens have to resort to virtual private networks (VPNs) to access them.

Fighting shutdowns is a big part of our work, as they violate constitutional rights to free expression and information and affect the whole population of the country, including businesses. It’s very important that people are aware of the economic implications along with the constitutional and rights violations. Through our research and reports, we’ve tried to raise awareness of how internet shutdowns cripple journalism and media work in Uganda.

In terms of advocacy work, we filed a case demanding that the Ugandan government, internet service providers and regulators explain the latest shutdowns in the country.

Your work is local, but can it help increase understanding of what is at stake for other countries, at a regional and global level?

Definitely. Our work at the national level greatly mirrors the growing repression on the internet at the regional and international level. Throughout Asia, Europe, Latin America or Africa, the world is faced with the increasing use of technology to undermine human rights, either through surveillance, misinformation or massive personal data exploitation. Human rights are universal, including in their online dimensions. Governments often copy each other’s practices, and civil society should also do this. We need to exchange learnings and build on what others have done to better protect human rights.