The Executive Director of Uganda Communications Commission, Godfrey Mutabazi, recently told the British Broadcasting Cooperation's Swahili service that all mobile phone users who would have not registered their SIM cards would have their lines blocked on March 1, 2013.
He said there would be no extension of the deadline. But there are several reasons why Mutabazi must reconsider his directives and notices over this matter. The imminent switching off of unregistered SIM cards is inoperative and invalid because it is neither backed by a legislative instrument nor gazetted in the Uganda Gazette and has not been approved by Parliament as required by law.
The March 1 deadline is an imagination of UCC and might have serious legal implications if not carefully handled. SIM card registration by law was supposed to be done within six months from the date of commencement of the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act. The commencement date was September 3, 2010; the registration did not start until March 1, 2012, and no explanation to this anomaly was given.
Switching off unregistered mobile phone SIMs on the designated date will be a punishment passed by Mutabazi to innocent mobile phone users on a premise that does not exist in the laws of Uganda. Parliament did not put a penalty on anyone who fails to register his or her SIM card within the period that was specified in the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act and UCC was never given such powers in any of the related laws.
The directives by Mutabazi and UCC threaten to violate the right to communication, fair hearing and rules of natural justice. There is no remedy for those who have not registered because of genuine reasons, and Mutabazi's directives insinuate or portray his unwillingness to listen.
SIM card registration has been marred by irregularities and illegalities; it is insensitive to marginalized groups and inconsiderate to the poor. Besides, UCC has not sufficiently and effectively supervised the process. The forms used by telecom companies to capture personal details are very different from the Form 3 format prescribed by Rule 7(3) of the Statutory Instrument No 42 of 2011 and substantially deviate from the statutory form.
The law is explicit on the form that must be used and there is no room for deviation. The current telecom forms are too complicated to comprehend and, therefore, adequately fill as compared to the legally prescribed form. They conscript mobile phone users into contractual obligations with the telecom companies and customers append their signatures unaware of the consequences.
The physically handicapped are supposed to be registered by "proxy", according to UCC, but the process is unclear and vague. Personal data is collected by hawkers who are paid per form submitted to the telecom companies, undermining the seriousness of the process and jeopardizing personal and national security.
Personal data is sensitive and cannot be entrusted with hawkers on the streets. Neither UCC nor the service providers have put in place adequate provisions for correcting data wrongly gathered, processed and stored due to human or technical error, oversight, negligence, laxity, impersonation, translation loss, language barrier, spelling mistakes, poor handwritings, etc.
Over a decade, 17 million people have acquired SIM cards. It is unthinkable that correct personal data of this magnitude can be captured accurately within 365 days. Switching off unregistered subscribers on March 1, 2013, would be disproportionately injurious to mobile phone users and UCC will be acting in excess of their authority under the law.
Alternatives such as allowing unregistered SIM cards holders to receive calls, sms from registered subscribers, and be able to call emergency hotlines like hospitals and police until they register would be a more humane approach.
Catherine Anite is a lawyer at HRNJ-Uganda and Isaac Kimaze is CEO Legal Brains Trust.