Govt plans for communication sector under spotlight

Ministry of ICT PS Amina Zawedde and MP Muhammad Nsereko. PHOTOS\FILE

What you need to know:

  • In a draft Bill, government wants to merge the communications players under one regulator overseen by a minister.

The government has put together a draft of the Information and Communications Bill 2022 that intends to merge Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), Media Council, and the National Information Technology Authority-Uganda (NITA-U) under a single regulator.

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

The draft also indicates that the Information, Communication Technology and National Guidance minister will have sweeping powers over the entire sector. It seeks to align Uganda with the best practices espoused by the International Telecommunications Union and the East African Community.

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

NITA-U is, meanwhile, charged with coordinating, promoting and monitoring Information Technology (IT) developments in Uganda within the context of national social and economic development.

The Media Council—which is established by Section 8 (1) of the Press and Journalist Act, Cap 105—is charged with the regulation of the mass media, including exercising disciplinary control over journalists, editors and publishers, and arbitrating disputes between the public and the media, and the state and the media.

If the Bill gets the green light, the communications authority will take on all the tasks. The authority will have nine board of directors appointed by the ICT minister, with the approval of Cabinet.

“Licensing and registration of media professionals (domestic and foreign) under the Press and Journalist Act to be transferred to the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance,” Section 7b of the Bill reads.

The ministry’s control over media houses could come under the spotlight. The Media Council, which currently runs the rule over this function, has been met with friction from practising journalists.  For instance, before the 2021 General Election, the Media Council issued directives that required journalists to register to cover the period of electioneering and other State events.

The journalists under their umbrella body Editors’ Guild Uganda—alongside the Centre for Public Interest Law— responded by petitioning the High Court’s Civil Division. They cited the lack of legal mandate by the Media Council to issue the said directives, insisting that the same would fundamentally infringe on the rights of freedom of expression in the country. 

Justice Esta Nambayo agreed with the journalists and issued a permanent injunction against the Media Council to immediately cease registering journalists as planned due to a lack of legal mandate and that its orders were irrational.

Sweeping powers
Crucially, the judge declared that the registration of journalists by the Media Council of Uganda without an operational National Institute of Journalists of Uganda to enrol journalists in accordance with the Press and Journalists Act is illegal. The new law indicates 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 apprise and develop functions of the Contents Committee established under Section 14(2) of the Uganda Communications Act 2013.  It will also—as per Section 13(c) of the proposed Bill—“provid[e] for regulation of media and content services considering new technologies in respect of production, publication, distribution, classification, exhibition and preservation of content.”

The Bill also gives the minister an oversight role over the ICT sector by empowering him to issue policy directives. 

When Ms Amina Zawedde, the Permanent Secretary in the ICT ministry, appeared before a parliamentary Committee on ICT and National Guidance a fortnight ago, she threw her weight behind the draft that is now before the Cabinet for approval.

“The Bill, once approved will, among others, harmonise and strengthen regulatory provisions in the existing laws; and includes repeal of the Press and Journalism Act CAP 105; the stage plays and public entertainment Act Cap 49 ; and as well as amend the Data Protection and Privacy Act,” she said.

Under the Data Protection and Privacy Act of 2019, NITA-U, among other things, is charged with ensuring data controllers and processors are compliant with principles of the Data Protection Act.
Nsereko Bill’s fate
During her interface with the ICT committee, Ms Zawedde also asked legislators to drop the proposed amendments of the Computer Misuse Act being spearheaded by Kampala Central MP Muhammad Nsereko. Mr Nsereko insists that social media has created channels for the abuse of rights and freedoms of others, especially the right to privacy.

In the Bill which was tabled in Parliament in July, Mr Nsereko proposed that Ugandans who violate the privacy of others, or smudge their reputation online should not be eligible to hold public office or stand for election if convicted under provisions of the proposed law. Specifically, the Bill, which is now before the ICT committee, seeks to criminalise “hate speech” detailing that “ a person shall not write, send or share any information through a computer which is likely to ridicule, degrade or demean another person, group of persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion or gender.”

“We recommend that we halt the computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill 2022 and we wait for the Information and Communications Bill, 2022 that will incorporate this Bill as well,” Ms Zawedde said, adding, “Currently, we have the draft principles of the Bill, which is before the Cabinet to proceed with the drafting of the Bill. We have realised that we currently have overlaps and decided to come up with the Information and Communications Bill, 2022 to be the encompassing Bill of the sector, including the Computer Misuse Act.”

In mirroring Nsereko’s proposals, the ministry, in the Bill, ambiguously talks about providing for online safety and privacy and the protection of the fundamental rights and privacy of users; providing for deterrent penalties and offences for dissemination of harmful content; and providing for a must-carry obligation in respect of broadcasting for the public broadcaster.

Mixed reactions 

The idea that Nsereko’s Bill should be dropped in light of the new law being crafted by the ministry didn’t go down well with Mr Moses Magogo, the chairperson of the parliamentary ICT Committee.

“If you look at the comments from the Ministry of ICT, they are actually shooting down most of the proposals in the Bill. As a committee, we shall continue with our discussion and meet other stakeholders,” he said, adding, “Allow us to internalise it and we shall definitely include the ministry’s opinion in the recommendation of Parliament.”

Critics of the Bill say instead of regulating the media, the government wants to have a firm grip over the industry.

“The minister is subservient to the powers that be, so you can't trust him or her to regulate the media in a principled manner,” Mr Peter Mwesige, the former executive director of Africa Centre for Media Excellence, said.

He further noted: “Our concern has always been the independence of the regulatory authority. The regulatory authority should be independent of the government such that it can be held to account. But when you hear that the ministry will be in charge of licensing, then you know we are not taking the right direction.”

He, however, welcomed the decision to institute a single regulatory authority in the communications sector. “There has been a lot of duplication so a single body is welcome such that we don’t have a lot of wastage,” Dr Mwesige said.