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Ugandan Online Publishers Criticize Registration as Political Control

FILE - Men work on their laptops at an internet cafe in Kampala, Nov. 11, 2011.
FILE - Men work on their laptops at an internet cafe in Kampala, Nov. 11, 2011.

Ugandan social media influencers and news organizations are critical of a new requirement announced last week that all commercial online publishers must register with the government. They see the rule as a step toward limiting freedom of speech and the press.

However, Uganda's Communication Commission says the publishers have to be watched to ensure they are posting appropriate content.

Bettina Tumuhaise, known online as the Proud Farmer, posts videos promoting farming and giving farmers advice on how to improve their incomes.

Tumuhaise has 17,000 followers — a small number in a country of 43 million people. But because she is doing well enough to make money off the posts, officials say online publishers like her must register so their content can be observed and regulated.

Tuhumaise says she would rather be taxed than monitored.

"If I am posting and am getting 300 per post, that, I get. And I'm sure you know this is what I am getting. Tell me, 'Give me 1%,' and I'll give it to you. But don't come hiding under registration, when in actual sense, you have your ways. You have something else that you're trying to promote," she said.

Uganda's Communications Commission says too much online content contains misinformation that can incite the public. Forcing those with influence to register — even those already licensed — will make them mindful of what they post, says UCC spokesman Ibrahim Bbossa.

"These are people who are online radios, online televisions, online publishers," Bbossa said. "But we are also saying that we have equally people who will be using online platforms, like blogs, like Facebook — still for commercial purposes, and they earn money from it. And they actually disseminate information to wide audiences. The content they put out there is of importance, so we say they should register."

But bloggers like Rosebell Kagumire note that Uganda already has laws to regulate online communication, and says the registration requirement is worrying.

"We see these undertones are very political. And very, really, rooted in the fact that Uganda is a very young country, and the person who is seeking to stay in power longer is older. And the population which is going to vote will be much younger for the first time, and they are on the internet, and they are visibly anti the status quo," Kagumire said.

FILE - A protester is arrested by police during a demonstration to protest a controversial tax on the use of social media, Kampala, Uganda, July 11, 2018.

Questions remain

Uganda last year instituted a social media tax that many online publishers saw as a government effort to curb free speech.

Nation Media Group editor Charles Bichachi says expanding the registration raises some concerns about press freedom, but is still in line with the law.

"UCC is testing out how much it can go, in terms of holding the media. And I think as media, we need to be able to fight back, but within the law," he said.

While authorities can easily track whether Uganda's media outlets have registered, it's not yet clear how well they will trace individuals, like bloggers, and what enforcement will be used to ensure compliance.