A Policy Brief released by Africa Freedom of Information Centre on ‘‘Advancing Digital Rights amidst COVID-19 in Uganda”, indicated that as the number of COVID-19 confirmed cases continue to soar, the government has been deliberate in embracing technology, including encouraging mobile money transactions, online engagements, especially for conferences and COVID-19 related behavior change communication campaigns.

Since the first case of the novel Corona Virus (Covid-19) was confirmed in Uganda on March 21st the country has since registered over 821 confirmed cases as of June 25th, 2020. Prior to the confirmation, the President, Yoweri Museveni had announced a series of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19, including the closing of institutions of learning, places of worship, suspending public gatherings; political rallies and cultural events, among others

Furthermore, restrictive measures that were put in place included the total lockdown and a dusk to dawn curfew for both public and private vehicles and people’s movements. However, while these measures, were well-intentioned, have hurt the enjoyment of fundamental human rights, especially the rights online.

The policy brief took a critical look at some of the digital rights that have been affected based on the principles of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms; Internet Access and Affordability, Freedom of Expression and Right to Information, Privacy and Data Protection, Marginalized Groups and Groups at Risk.

The primary objective of this briefing paper is to provide evidence-based analysis of the government measures, as well as those of private actors being implemented to respond to the COVID-19 and how they are affecting digital rights.

‘’Many of our digital rights are impacted by COVID-19. Now more than ever, the government should be dedicated to ensuring that technology supports freedom, justice, and innovation for all its people.’’ Ms. Asimwe John, Senior Program Officer, AFIC

‘’New technologies and ideas can help address the public health crisis. We must have free and open access to scientific knowledge about the virus.’’ Ms. Dorothy Namukasa, ED, Unwanted Witness.

The policy brief said in part: ‘’that whereas social media has revealed the power of social networks in a crisis, some governments have not taken measures to fully embrace the opportunities it presents. In Uganda, the government’s failure to suspend the implementation of the OTT tax, even after several appeals from different stakeholders including the Speaker of Parliament, Rt. Hon. Rebecca Kadaga has continued to undermine the efforts to increase access to and affordability of ICTs by a large majority, thus denying large population access to critical COVID-19 related information that is being shared through social media platforms.

 

The principle of internet access and affordability requires that governments offer direct support to facilitate high-speed Internet access, by establishing necessary infrastructure and infrastructure facilities, including access to openly licensed or unlicensed spectrum, electricity supply, community-based ICT centers, libraries, community centers, clinics, and schools, as this is crucial.

Civil society groups pushing for increased respect for digital rights by governments said that there’s a need to better liaise and regularize their advocacy in seeking the best interest of Ugandans online. They said the digital rights advocacy needed to be actively pursued by advocates across the digital, press and human rights spheres in order to make more concrete progress and to consolidate gains. “… even in this challenging context, it presents an opportunity as it highlights the need for collaboration among civil society actors across various countries and regions.’’

“As the Regulator, UCC is open to discussions with CSOs and other stakeholders on how to take on issues raised in the policy brief in order to ensure that the rights are protected, most importantly to ensure that the legal frameworks are followed” Mr. Ibrahim Bbossa, Head Public and International Relations, UCC

There is no doubt that the impact of civil society’s work in the defense of digital rights can be vastly improved if there is more collaboration and coordination.

In view of the above, we call upon the government to:

1. Suspend the implementation of the OTT tax as a way of reducing its associated costs in accessing certain social media platforms. Marginalized groups also need to access ICTs on the cheap.
 
2. Work with telecom giants to zero-rate essential online platforms such as the ministry of health websites, the president’s office and that of the COVID-19 national task force that is providing critical information to the public.
COVID-19 related information needs to be conveyed in a range of different local languages, and formats that cater for people living with disabilities, to guarantee that all members of the population are appropriately informed and empowered by the information being communicated.
 
3. Ensure that the role of the media is protected, respected and promoted to ensure that they can perform their essential function in informing and educating the public, as well as ensuring accountability, including providing the media with relevant information and enabling them to raise questions with relevant officials
 
4. To have clear channels of communication to curb misinformation and disinformation relating to COVID-19 with approaches that promote transparency and media freedom, rather than relying on criminal sanctions.
 
5. Ensure departments responsible for collecting and processing personal details, such as Ministry of Health, Civil Aviation Authority to follow proper guidelines in the collection, processing and sharing the details with other agencies in accordance with the law and Data collections agencies are held accountable for any breach of law in respect to the privacy and personal data protection.
6. Engage a wide range of stakeholders in developing distance and digital learning frameworks that are all-encompassing.

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