KAMPALA (Reuters) - Influencers on Ugandan social media and others with large, commercialized online followings must henceforth register their activities for monitoring by the state, the country’s communications regulator said on Thursday.
Authorities say the scheme, which also levies a $20 fee, is designed to clamp down on immoral or prejudiced content. Critics view it as part of an escalating campaign by President Yoweri Museveni to suppress online content disapproving of him and his government.
Last week, university lecturer and social researcher Stella Nyanzi was jailed for 18 months on cyber harassment charges stemming from a Facebook post criticizing Museveni.
According to digital communications rights watchdog Unwanted Witness, between 2016 and 2018 at least 33 Ugandans have either been summoned and interrogated by police or charged with online communications offences.
The registration scheme is “not a positive move, it infringes on the rights to freedom of expression. People are able express themselves well when they know that somebody is not watching over them,” said the organization’s chief executive, Dorothy Mukasa.
Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) spokesman Ibrahim Bbosa said the “data communicators” to be registered included individuals with heavily followed social media and other online accounts that carried ads alongside other content on platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
That would include prominent musicians, journalists and socialites.
“As a data communicator... you’re pushing out content which could easily violate the known parameters of morality, of incitement, of ethnic prejudice or not be factual,” Bbosa said.
“We want online platforms to register with the commission so that we can monitor (them),” a process that the $20 fee was designed to fund.
Robert Ssempala, national coordinator for Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, said that, for many, the fee was prohibitive.
“The spirit of the regulation is essentially to make it extremely unaffordable, to make it extremely frightening for people to engage in sharing information on social media,” he added.
Last year the government introduced a tax on the use of popular social media platforms.
Museveni has repeatedly complained that Ugandan social media is a vehicle for “lying” and “gossip”, interpreted referring to information critical of government.
In power since 1986, he is widely expected to stand again in the next presidential election in 2021.
Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; editing by John Stonestreet