Kampala — What, really, is the mandate of the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC)?
On its face, UCC's mandate appears clear; it is the country's communications regulatory agency. It is supposed to promote and safeguard the interests of consumers and operators on quality. However, there is a growing view that UCC does not have the legal mandate to do some of the things it has been doing instead. Critics point out that the space for free speech is shrinking because the state uses the law selectively to determine what can and cannot pass.
The matter has become so urgent that the Parliamentary Committee on Commissions, State Authorities and State Enterprises (COSASE) has it on its agenda.
A member of the committee, Medard Lubega Sseggona, who is the MP for Busiiro South, says as soon as there is opportunity, COSASE will summon UCC officials to explain why they are engaged in certain activities that appear to be outside the agency's mandate.
He told The Independent in an interview that UCC has moved beyond regulation to become a repressive agency and cited incidents in which UCC has blocked social media access, stopped media houses from covering certain political events, and either closed or threatened to close media outlets that give a platform to opponents of the ruling NRM party.
"What Mutabazi is doing is in effect criminal," Sseggona says in reference to Godfrey Mutabazi, the UCC executive director, "the rate at which UCC is denying Ugandans access to information and professionals the right to practice their trade is alarming and deplorable."
The Human Rights Network for Journalists Uganda (HRNJ-U) also says it is going to court to seek interpretation on the mandate of UCC.
Robert Ssempala, the HRNJ-U national coordinator told The Independent that his organization is reacting to UCC's recent directive to media houses to stop live broadcasts of MPs exchanging punches on Sept.26 in parliament.
"We don't know if they are doing this deliberately or there is pressure behind them but one thing is for sure; what UCC is doing is absolutely wrong; it is illegal and illegitimate," Ssempala told The Independent.
Tempers flared in Parliament on Sept.26 over a controversial motion to delete Article 102 (b) that limits the age of presidential candidates from the Constitution.
Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, was compelled to abruptly adjourn the House after opposition MPs disrupted Igara West MP, Raphael Magyezi, from moving a motion on removing the presidential age limit. The pro-age limit MPs sang and made other noises for close to 20 minutes inside the Parliament Chambers until Kadaga sent the House packing.
Security personnel entered the chambers and dragged rowdy MPs out when they attempted a repeat the next day. Despite Mutabazi's ban on live broadcast, images of MPs being battered, fighting with microphones, and throwing parliament furniture at each other were beamed around the world.
UCC's minimum broadcasting standards in regard to violence and crime state that any suggestions that justice can be achieved by violence, vigilante action, or other means of taking law enforcement into one's own hands; should be avoided. Any exceptions must take into account the context and redeeming values. Such depictions of violence may frighten, unnerve, unsettle or invite imitation, especially from children.
Fred Otunnu, UCC's director of Corporate Affairs told The Independent that live coverage of events is supposed to be managed differently to avoid putting out undesirable content. UCC says broadcasting brawls by MPs incites the public, is discriminatory, stirs up hatred, and promotes a culture of violence amongst the viewers. It is likely to create public insecurity or violence.
Otunnu says broadcast houses everywhere in the world have equipment that delay relay of such content by a micro-second.
"That micro-second is important in broadcasting," he said because it helps in editing out scenes that are not desirable for viewers' consumption.
"The UCC directive was a reminder for broadcasters to enforce that," Otunnu says.
The UCC wrote in its directive to broadcasting houses: "The commission hereby directs all broadcasters to immediately stop and refrain from broadcasting live feeds which are in breach of the minimum broadcasting standards and the best practice guidelines for electronic media coverage/reporting and broadcasting of live events."
It added: "The commission would not hesitate to carry out enforcement for non-compliance with these guidelines and any further breach will result in suspension and revocation of your licence in accordance with Section 41 of the Uganda Communications Act 2013."
But some media executives were in disagreement with the ban saying Parliament is a public space and should, therefore, be opened to live media broadcasts.
In a letter dated Sept. 29, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) responded to Mutabazi's letter saying freedom of expression is a cardinal principle enshrined in the Constitution of Uganda under Article 29.
"It is a fact that live broadcasting does not depict falsehoods but rather is an account of actuality: It is our view that the messenger should not bear the brunt of any such factual message for which the public has a right to see and hear."
"We are yet to see (and we welcome the same) evidence of incitement, as alleged, arising from these live broadcasts, with an introspective view of the other mediums to which the public is exposed where violence is a staple feature (films, television programmes and stage plays)."
"As you may recall in 2011, NAB entered into a memorandum of understanding with the UCC with respect to live broadcasting."
The broadcasters' association had also received complaints from its members who operate upcountry harassment, intimidation and in extreme cases, closure by the government operatives.
The letter noted that the memorandum detailed the manner and conduct broadcasters would implement in covering live events also noting that the broadcasters had diligently obliged to the memorandum which should continue guiding their operations.
But UCC has also targeted opposition legislators in other ways. The most hit appears to be celebrated musician Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, who is the new Kyadondo East MP.
Media houses, allegedly acting on orders or cues from UCC, have blocked him. On Sept.28, for example, he was scheduled to appear on NTV's political talk show 'On the Spot' but was blocked. On Sept. 30, he was supposed to be on Capital FM's 'Capital Gang' but he was also blocked.
"I was later informed that the radio was directed by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and received phone-calls from security operatives not to host me," Kyagulanyi posted on his Facebook page, "I was called by other radio and TV stations and they confirmed that they received the same order- with threats that if I am hosted, they risked being closed."
Oskar Semweya-Musoke, the Capital Gang host explained to his audience for Kyagulanyi's absence with this tweet: "We received phone calls that stopped us from hosting @HEBobinwine on #CapitalGang today."
Kyagulanyi was one of the opposition MPs evicted from parliament over the melee that erupted during the tabling of Magyezi's Private Member's Bill to lift the presidential age limit.
Kyagulanyi has appeared to be targeted by UCC since he won a by-election towards the end of June as an independent MP and immediately adopted anti-President Yoweri Museveni rhetoric.
There were even rumours that UCC had instructed radio stations not to play his latest hit, 'Freedom,' which allegedly fans violence among the public as it calls upon Ugandans to rise up because saving "Our nation is a responsibility of all of us the children of Uganda."
He sings about how, "Ugandans are fed up of those who oppress our lives (sic) and everything that takes away our rights."
Some of the lyrics translated from Luganda, a widely spoken local dialect are: "Uganda seems to be moving backwards; rise up friends because we know that saving our nation is a responsibility of all of us the children of Uganda.
"No matter your age, sex, religion, and tribe; educated or uneducated, this is a revolution; whether you are a doctor, farmer, teacher, policeman, lawyer, soldier, taxi driver or student, Ugandans in the Diaspora or bodaboda rider, rise up and don't give up."
But Pamela Ankunda, the Head Public Relations at UCC, told The Independent on Nov. 10 that UCC has not banned Kyagulanyi's song because the agency's mandate does not go that far.
"We regulate content and not people," she said.
She said all UCC has done is remind broadcasters of their liability in case their platform is used to air content that are contrary to the laws and minimum broadcasting regulations.
"That is very different from saying, don't host this person on the talk show," she said.
Even if UCC had banned the song, Kyagulanyi has already vowed not to respect its directives. He says the regulatory authority's decisions depict double standards and bias. He said artistes who sing songs that support the NRM regime are never barred from doing so.
"I have fundamental rights of singing and speaking about anything without seeking permission from anyone," Kyagulanyi says.
Ssempala says UCC's suspension of people from appearing on certain media houses' talk shows is blatant abuse of their right to expression.
"It is under the influence of politicians who want to shut up all voices of dissent and curtail the free flow of critical information," he says, "All that is overstepping their mandate."
Recently, UCC has blocked journalists from covering the activities of striking doctors. In the past, it has ordered media houses not to do live broadcasts of Walk-to-Work protests, the Kasese massacre during the attack on the palace of the Rwenzururu king, Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere last November and the subsequent trial early this year. In the February presidential elections, UCC blocked social media platforms and mobile money networks. The shutdown remained in place until the afternoon of Sunday, Feb.21 when President Museveni was declared winner.
The UCC said access to social media platforms like Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook via mobile phones and the mobile money networks had been temporarily blocked citing national security concerns during the election period.
The telecom firm, MTN, confirmed that UCC directed it to block social media and mobile money services due to a threat to public order and safety. Critics say UCC's mandate does not give it such powers.
The UCC's primary mandate is to regulate and grow the media in Uganda," says Ssempala, but it has since taken to controlling and restricting the media freedom.
"This is complete abuse which is politically motivated," he says, "We don't want UCC to control the media in a negative manner," he told The Independent on Nov.13.
Sseggona also says UCC is harassing media houses by refusing to renew their licenses.
"As we speak, 75% of media houses in the country do not have valid licences because UCC wants to close them at the slightest opportunity under the guise of lack of valid licence," he said.
On the issue of delayed licenses, Otunnu told The Independent that the process has been complicated because of transiting from analogue transmission to digital television.
Media experts say internet shutdowns and state violence go hand in hand. They say shut downs disrupt the free flow of information and create a cover of darkness that allows state repression to occur without scrutiny.
Internet shutdowns--with government ordering the suspension or throttling of entire networks, often during election or public protests--must never be allowed to become the new normal.
Justified for public safety purposes, shut downs instead cut off access to vital information, e-financing and emergency services, plunging whole societies into fear and destabilizing the internet's power to support small businesses, livelihoods and drive economic development.
Ssempala says UCC's directives instill fear and scare the media from discussing current topical issues.
"Many people get away with criminality because UCC has prevailed over the watchdog (media) which is actually supposed to put people in position of responsibility to account," he says.