26 February 2013

Uganda: SIM Registration Taken to Court

Kampala — The whole of last week Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) and the telecom companies have been running adverts in print and broadcast media counting down to the deadline of the mandatory SIM card registration slated for this week on Friday.

Mobile phones users who had not yet registered were also seen making frantic efforts to register their SIM cards before the deadline since UCC has since refused to back down on its decision.

Behind all this is a running court battle between the sector regulators and Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ) a network for journalists on human rights in Uganda over the legality of the registration and the manner under which it's being done.

Human Rights Network for Journalists together with Legal Brains Trust Ltd, dragged the communications regulator along with the Attorney General to High Court in Kampala, claiming the whole exercise is illegal as there is no parliamentary approval to that effect.

The journalists are seeking court orders declaring the notices by UCC to switch off unregistered SIM-cards on March 1, without parliamentary approval, as null and void.

HRNJ also wants the communications regulator to extend the March 1 deadline so as to rectify several anomalies that have surfaced in the exercise.

In the suit, HRNJ says that unless the planned switch-off date is permanently delayed until the "illegalities, irregularities and anomalies" are comprehensively resolved by UCC, subscribers are likely to suffer massive losses and injustices.

The first court proceedings were slated for Monday 25 February, a meeting in which key decision were likely to determine the destiny of the security sensitive countrywide registration.

The journalist body that started their move to halt the SIM card registration way back last year, spent much of their time in the last two week lobbying parliamentarians, politicians and other government bodies to that effect.

Similarly the body has also engaged the telecom companies asking them to elaborate under which law they are registering Ugandans. Apparently the telecoms only have the confidentiality clause which is not binding enough, according to Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebagala, the National Coordinator

Despite relying on the confidentiality clause, Wokulira Ssebagala, accuses the telecoms of giving out people's mobile numbers during the last general elections and the continued delivery of unsolicited SMSes that flog subscriber inbox.

"The information they are collecting is supposed to be handled by government unfortunately we don't have the laws to guide on collection, storage and accessibility of people's data and information.

"Like in Europe, to access someone's data you have to go to court but in Uganda it's a matter of having money because this information they have collected have remained in the hands telecommunication companies that came here to make money." Wokulira Ssebagala told East African Business Week ahead of the court hearing.

In an interview Fred Otunnu the UCC communication manager told East African Business Week the court application has had no impact on their decision to implement the deactivation of those SIM cards that are yet to register unless the court decides so.

"No it has not affected us; we are proceeding with our position." Otunnu said on phone.

UCC in a fix

Putting the court issue aside, UCC, is in some sort of dilemma because millions of phone users are yet to register their SIM cards. UCC might be the regulators but the telecom companies have the final decision, they cannot afford to switch off their subscribers because they will lose revenues horribly.

Asked if they will switch of their unregistered customers Pheona Wall the public relations manager at Airtel Uganda said they will because the law requires them.

"We wish we had more time but as it is we have to abide by the law." Wall said.

Because of uneasiness in the industry the commission was scheduled to meet last Friday to evaluate the progress of the registration, a meeting Otunnu said could influence the decision of extending or sticking with the March 1 2013 deadline.

By press time East African Business Week had not established the outcome of the meeting.

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