The US Embassy Mission in Kampala this afternoon facilitated, in partnership with ICTAU, an open dialog on Net Freedom in Uganda. In attendance were the usual suspects one can find at such brain gatherings in the country – Uganda’s net citizen 1 per centers.
The topic of discussion was internet freedoms at large, but in particular, the resulting outrage from the election period social media shut downs as carried out by Uganda’s Communications Commission (UCC).
In attendance from UCC was Fred Otunnu, attempting his best to dodge verbal bullets from a rightfully angry civil society.
To start my summary, I have to begin with disappointment. This dialog is what needed to happen BEFORE the heavily contested electoral process AND should have been led by the UCC setting standards of proper engagement. I was disappointed that it took the US State Department to convene such a dialog AFTER what is now lampooned as a step backwards for the civil liberties of Ugandans during the country’s recent elections.
Otunnu, in representing UCC, failed to defend the agency’s autonomy in the decision-making that led to the shutting down social media not once but twice. The agency, via Otunnu’s comments, failed to communicate in clear terms what the exact security threat was that warranted nearly four million people being denied access to their favorite discussion platforms during what was inarguably the most critical topic of discussion: deciding the future of the country.
The shut down, irrespective of who directed it, came across like the emperor’s attempt to muzzle dissent from his subjects. Everyone who disagreed, was deemed a security threat. This mentality is counterproductive. It doesn’t belong in a maturing democracy. Dialog is central to a well-functioning democracy. It is the central tenant to governing democratically.
Uganda’s emerging modern future identity is very much defined by digital communications tools, just like previous generations were defined by political radio shows and newspaper articles. Digital is our platform for discourse. It’s here to stay. It is here where learned voices and emerging, discordant nitizens engage.
Demographically, Uganda is a young country. Over 17 million of us are under 15. 78% under 30. Our future is digital. It’s connected. It’s social. And it’s distributed.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that we have a government (more precisely, a ruling party) more interested in controlling and sustaining the present command and control governance strategy, which is wholly incongruent with the emerging reality of the country.
According to Otunnu, UCC (supposedly) believes in the freedom of expression. If the theory is there, the practical application is lacking as evidenced by their blind following of a misguided directive. Are we only free to express ourselves if it pleases the emperor? Or is the emperor advanced and secure enough in his rule to allow dissenting opinion to inform his governance?
During the meeting, I challenged UCC to do its job of clearly engaging — within its jurisdiction — both government entities and netizens. If UCC is indeed an independent body, it has an obligation to not take sides. The social media muzzle they flexed on all users in the country exhibited a decidedly partisan decision-making process that was neither transparent nor independent. In short, UCC sold out to party interest under the guise of maintaining security.
We owe it to our future engaged citizens an atmosphere of open dialog, where dissenting discourse is welcome. It is from sharing our varied opinions and views that the country we love can be best served. We need government entities willing to engage, listen, and learn. We need humanized entities willing to evolve. I’ve long admired how Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) conducts business over social media. We need more government entities that can emulate —and perhaps surpass—URA’s lead.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. If we are to have a functioning democracy, we need government policy that’s in tune with the importance, promise, and omni-presence of online communication tools. We need governance that regulates all sides, not governance that seeks to control in the interest of one party.