Uganda is mulling over the idea of creating its own social media platforms. But social media users and government critics see this as a potential effort to control free expression.
Facebook and Twitter should brace themselves for competition from Uganda. With no name yet or date on when the new services will be operational, the Uganda Communications Commission is planning to launch its own social media platforms.
Commission Director Godfrey Mutabazi says Uganda has many young people who have come up with innovations and applications that can be deployed to serve the population.
“There is open information for everything. We have got over almost 70 percent penetration," he said. "We are moving into digital era, data communication. We are hope that by the end of this year 20-25 percent, maybe 30 percent of Ugandans will be on data communication. So we shall access the information, education-wise, research, name it, will be available.”
Nicholas Opiyo executive director of Chapter Four Uganda, a local civil liberties organization, says Uganda is not seeking to develop its own social media space because it appreciates the innovative power of social media. He fears a darker purpose.
“One I don’t believe they can do it, but if they want to do it, it’s not for the best of intentions," he said. "Recent studies have shown that the government of Uganda is now involved in active filtering of particular information. Namely; information about corruption, information about same sex relations, critical government policies on the first family, that’s what they are trying to do. That’s what they are trying to do, because the biggest threat to this government now, is an informed citizenry."
In 2016, the Ugandan government shut down social media twice — on Election Day and during President Yoweri Museveni’s swearing in ceremony. For social media users like Jackie Kemigisa, a move by the government regulator to set up its own social media is cause to worry.
“As a person who uses social media and whose source of employment, everything that I do is online, it was a horrible idea. At first I thought it was a joke. So, counting on the sad part of it that they don’t have the money, and if they do, well then, Ugandans will have to re-strategize, go back to the drawing board and see how we can still fight for our freedoms,” said Kemigisa.
Critics say a social media platform controlled by the government will put Uganda in the same league as countries such as Iran, China and North Korea. But the Uganda Communications Commission has described those who see this innovation as eroding freedom of speech as patronizing. The government agency insists they just want to keep hate speech out of Ugandan social media, and says the new platforms are going to be positive.