Government plans for the communications sector in the spotlight | Panda Anku

The government has prepared a draft Information and Communications Act 2022 which intends to bring together the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the Media Council and the National Information Technology Authority-Uganda (NITA-U) under a single regulator.

According to the draft, the regulatory body will be called the Uganda Communications Authority, attempting to mirror the Communications Authority of Kenya, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.

The draft also indicates that the Minister for Information, Communications Technology and National Advice will have broad powers over the entire sector. It seeks to align Uganda with the best practices advocated by the International Telecommunications Union and the East African Community.

UCC currently regulates the communicators sector, which includes telecommunications, broadcasting, radio communications, postal communications, data communications and infrastructure.

NITA-U, meanwhile, is tasked with coordinating, promoting and monitoring information technology (IT) developments in Uganda in the context of national social and economic development.

The Media Council, established by Section 8(1) of the Press and Journalists Act, Cap 105, is tasked with regulating the mass media, including exercising disciplinary control over journalists, editors and publishers and settling disputes between the public and the media and the state and the media.

If the draft law gets the green light, the communications authority takes over all tasks. The agency will have nine directors appointed by the ICT Minister with the approval of the Cabinet.

“Licensing and registration of media professionals (domestic and foreign) under the Press and Journalists Act, to be delegated to the Ministry of ICT and National Governance,” Section 7b of the draft law states.

The ministry’s control over media houses could come under the spotlight. The Media Council, which currently rules this function, has drawn criticism from practicing journalists. For example, ahead of the 2021 general election, the Media Council issued guidelines requiring journalists to register to cover the period of election campaigns and other state events.

The journalists under their umbrella organization Editors’ Guild Uganda – along with the Center for Public Law – responded by petitioning the Civil Division of the High Court, citing the Media Council’s lack of a statutory mandate to issue the said guidelines and insisting that that would fundamentally violate freedom of expression rights in the country.

Judge Esta Nambayo concurred with the journalists and issued an injunction against the media council to immediately stop the planned registration of journalists because it lacked a legal mandate and its orders were irrational.

Far-Reaching Powers
Crucially, the judge stated that without a functioning National Institute of Journalists of Uganda to register journalists, the registration of journalists by the Media Council of Uganda is illegal under the Press and Journalists Act. The new law shows that the government wants to transfer responsibility for content censorship and registration of newspapers (print and online) from the Media Council to the Uganda Communications Authority.

The new communications regulator will also inform and further develop the functions of the Content Committee established under Section 14(2) of the Uganda Communications Act 2013. In addition, pursuant to Section 13(c) of the proposed legislation, it will “provide[e] on the regulation of media and content services, taking into account new technologies related to the production, publication, distribution, classification, exhibition and preservation of content.”

The bill also gives the minister an oversight role over the ICT sector, empowering him to issue policies.

Appearing before a parliamentary committee on ICT and national guidance two weeks ago, Ms. Amina Zawedde, State Secretary in the ICT Ministry, supported the draft, which is now before the Cabinet for approval.

“The bill, once approved, will, among other things, harmonize and strengthen regulatory provisions in existing laws; and includes the repeal of Press and Journalism Act CAP 105; the plays and public entertainment Act Cap 49; and as well as amending the Data Protection Act,” she said.

Under the Data Protection Act 2019, NITA-U is tasked, among other things, with ensuring that data controllers and processors comply with the principles of the Data Protection Act.

Nsereko Bill’s fate
During her talks with the ICT Committee, Ms Zawedde also urged lawmakers to drop proposed changes to the Computer Abuse Act, which were spearheaded by Kampala Central Government MP Muhammad Nsereko. Mr Nsereko insists that social media has created channels for abuse of the rights and freedoms of others, particularly the right to privacy.

In the draft law, which was submitted to Parliament in July, Mr Nsereko proposed that Ugandans who violate the privacy of others or smear their reputation online should not be entitled to hold public office or stand for election if they be convicted under the terms of the proposed law. In particular, the bill, now before the ICT Committee, seeks to criminalize “hate speech,” which states that “a person shall not write, send or transmit information through a computer that is likely to ridicule another person or group.” do, to humiliate or demean any person, tribe, ethnicity, religion or gender.”

“We recommend that we stop the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act 2022 and wait for the Information and Communications Act 2022, which will also include that Act,” Ms Zawedde said, adding: “Currently we have the draft principles of the Draft law before Cabinet to proceed with drafting of the bill. We recognized that we currently have overlaps and have decided to draft the Information and Communications Bill 2022 as a comprehensive legislation for the sector, including the Computer Misuse Act.”

Following Nsereko’s proposals, the ministry speaks ambiguously in the draft law about providing online safety and privacy and protecting the fundamental rights and privacy of users; providing dissuasive penalties and criminal offenses for the distribution of harmful content; and the provision of a broadcast must-carry obligation for the public service broadcaster.

The idea that Nsereko’s bill should be dropped in light of the new law being drafted by the ministry did not sit well with Mr Moses Magogo, the chairman of the parliamentary ICT committee.

“If you look at the ICT Department’s comments, they actually shoot down most of the proposals in the bill. As a committee, we will continue our discussion and meet other stakeholders,” he said, adding: “Allow us to internalize this and we will certainly incorporate the ministry’s opinion into the Parliament’s recommendation.”

Critics of the bill say instead of regulating the media, the government wants a firm grip on the industry.

“The minister is subordinate to those in power, so you can trust him or her to regulate the media in a principled way,” said Peter Mwesige, former executive director of the Africa Center for Media Excellence.

He further noted: “Our concern has always been the independence of the regulator. The regulator should be independent from the government so that it can be held accountable. But when you hear that the ministry will be in charge of licensing, you know we’re not going in the right direction.”

However, he welcomed the decision to set up a single regulator in the communications sector. “There were a lot of duplications, so a single body is welcome so we don’t have a lot of waste,” said Dr. Mweige.

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