Peaceful Elections in Digital Times: Freedom of Expression and Access to Information as Key Promoters

Africa Freedom of Information Centre, AFIC, organized a three-day workshop from the 11th to the 13th of July 2023 at Protea Hotel Skyz in Kampala funded by UNESCO.

The training was based on UNESCO’s 2019 report on elections and media in digital times; which identified three global threats of significance for elections in today’s increasingly interconnected societies, and these include the spread of disinformation and misinformation, as well as hate-speech; the increase in intimidations and violence against journalists and media actors; and disruptions in electoral campaigning.

The overall objective of the workshop was to strengthen the capacities of electoral stakeholders on international standards on freedom of expression, and access to information, for the promotion of free and fair elections in Uganda. This objective was achieved through training over fifty representatives from electoral stakeholders. The training was also meant to foster understanding, identify challenges, or propose recommendations regarding AI, social media, and the electoral process, and to increase media engagement on the subject.

Both Sylvia Adong, the UNESCO representative and Gilbert Sendugwa, the Executive Director of AFIC, while giving their opening remarks, emphasized the need for the promotion of free and fair elections in Uganda.

The training was highly engaging and was attended by the representatives of the electoral key stakeholders including; the Electoral Commission, the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the Uganda Police, Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, the CSOs and political parties including NRM, NUP, DP, JEEMA and their umbrella, IPOD.

The stakeholders were trained on how best social media and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be harnessed to have a positive impact on the electoral process. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, have played a prominent role in political discussions and mobilization in Uganda. They have and continue to be used by both government supporters and opposition voices to express opinions, share information, and organize political activities. They have provided alternative spaces for news dissemination and expression of diverse viewpoints.

That notwithstanding, the media landscape in Uganda has faced challenges related to freedom of expression and media independence. There have been instances of media censorship, harassment of journalists, and closures of media outlets critical of the government. To date, Facebook remains closed in Uganda.

During the training, the facilitators presented on three major topics which included; Artificial Intelligence and Elections, Impact of social media and AI in the Electoral Cycle; International Human Rights Law Framework in the era of social media and Artificial Intelligence (AI); The New Information Paradigm Law Framework and Tackling Disinformation all along the Electoral cycle. These topics were presented by Dr. Micheal Kiberu Nagenda, Dr. Adolf Mbaine and Dr. Sarah Namusoga respectively.

The major highlights in the presentations included the ethical implications of AI, misinformation, disinformation and mal information on social media, voter targeting, and the role of online platforms in political campaigning; and both the domestic and international human rights legal framework on elections.

Dr. Nagenda stated that the implications of AI and social media on the electoral cycle in Uganda are multi-faceted and that while these technologies offer opportunities for greater voter engagement and communication, they also pose challenges related to the spread of misinformation, data privacy, and the potential for manipulation. He thus said that addressing these implications requires comprehensive regulatory frameworks, public awareness campaigns, and responsible use of AI and social media platforms during the electoral process.

An overview of the current electoral landscape in Uganda, including recent elections and the role of social media. Uganda holds presidential elections every five years. The most recent presidential election was held in January 2021, with incumbent President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni Tibuhaburwa winning. The election, just like many others before, was marked by controversies and allegations of irregularities, including high violations of human rights, brutality, internet shutdowns, among others.

Since 2001, Uganda’s political climate has been marked by a significant degree of polarization and a challenging environment for opposition parties. Opposition leaders and supporters have faced restrictions, including limitations on political rallies, arbitrary arrests, and instances of violence and intimidation. This has also affected the rates of voter participation across different elections while voter turnout has not been spared. There have been concerns about voter apathy, especially among the youth. Efforts to enhance voter education, registration, and civic engagement continue to be important for the electoral process.

The Constitution of Uganda, 1995 as amended, and other principal legislations like the Parliamentary Elections Act, 2005 and the Local Government Act Cap 243 as amended provide for the legal framework that govern elections in Uganda. Since 2001, Uganda has had regular elections. Many political actors have not only spoken against Uganda’s laws promoting unfair elections but also being used selectively to favour the ruling government.

Be that as it may, discussions on electoral reforms and the need for comprehensive changes to ensure free, fair, and transparent elections have been ongoing in Uganda. These discussions have focused on issues such as electoral laws, the independence of electoral institutions, and enhancing inclusivity and transparency in the electoral process.

Nsuube Richard, the Public Relations Officer-Electoral Commission, stated that organizing elections and ensuring that they are free and fair, is not a preserve of the electoral body alone but a collective effort of all the stakeholders. Whereas Richard conceded that there are some failures by the Electoral Commission as the leading body mandated to organize elections, not all challenges should be attributed to the EC alone. Godfrey Akanyijuka from the EC’s legal department buttressed this position when he opined that it is the responsibility of all the electoral stakeholders to have regular, free and fair elections and that failure by one stakeholder to play their part could lead to electoral challenges.

Christine Kabazira, the Human Rights Officer-Uganda Human Rights Commission, used the occasion to rally all stakeholders especially the Uganda Police Force to observe human rights especially during elections so that there can always be violence-free elections.

In light of the above therefore, in the digital age, freedom of expression and access to information have become vital for fostering peaceful elections. Empowering citizens with the tools to express their views and access reliable information enhances the quality of democratic discourse, promotes transparency, and reinforces trust in electoral processes. By safeguarding these key promoters, societies can navigate the challenges of the digital era and embrace a future of democratic resilience and peaceful elections.