“If surveillance is a daily thing, people start to think twice before going online” | #speakup! barometer - highlighting digital participation | DW | 07.05.2018
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#speakup barometer

“If surveillance is a daily thing, people start to think twice before going online”

The #speakup barometer team talked to Jeff Wokulira Ssebaggala, director of witnessradio.org. He is concerned about recent developments in Uganda as the government tightens control over the Internet.

Uganda Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, witnessradio.org (DW/S. Leidel)

Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala is the Executive Director of witnessradio.org, a human rights organization from Uganda.

#speakup barometer: What are you aiming at with your current project?

Jeff Wokulira Ssebaggala (JWS):Witnessradio.org is a new project that I'm working on with a focus on promoting investigative journalism and technology to advocate for human rights. Our aim is to produce uncensored content that is very impartial and objective.

 

Can Ugandan citizen communicate safe and freely online?

I want to say certainly, because as far as Uganda is concerned, I think we have many new connections on Internet than the old ones. People who go online for the first time, do so to socializing with limited knowledge on challenges. But there are people who use the Internet for specific reasons like criticizing the regime, demanding accountability, increasing participation in governance or other issues. They have found it rough. We have seen dozens of people being arrested, kidnapped or taken to court because the police have established a cyber crime unit to monitor their activities online.

Uganda is an interesting country. In the past five years, we have had more than eight pieces of legislation to control the Internet. One of them is the "Computer Misuse Act," that introduced one of the laws that were outlawed by Constitutional court, the law on sedition. Sedition was a pre-independence law that barred citizens from questioning or holding government officials accountable.

Section 25 of the computer misuse act talks about offensive communication and many people who have been arrested for using the Internet have been arrested under this section. There are also others like the interception of communications act, which gives the government power to intercept any form of communication. Even the anti-terrorism act is also being applied, which was last amended in 2015.

 

So there are a lot of problems on the legal side – but do you think the Internet has given more people in Uganda a voice?

The Internet is a very interesting medium, it gives people access. When it comes to less political issues like promoting agriculture, it is easy to promote this online and to know costs on the market. It could also be an innovative solution to fight unemployment. There is over 73 percent unemployment in Uganda.  But, since the Internet seems to be controlled, very few people believe that the Internet has brought alternatives to such problems.

 

How does the digital innovations sector in Uganda fit into this difficult situation?  Isn't there is also a very vibrant innovation scene?

It puts innovators and the users of their apps in a tricky situation. If surveillance is a daily thing, people start to think twice. They think, 'if I connect to the Internet, who will profile me or if I browse on the Internet who is profiling me?'

The Internet is tricky because it keeps history and if someone wants to pursue charges against you or if your enemy opens it, it becomes easy. So it poses a threat and you find that the ideal result is not fully achieved.

 

What do you expect in the next few years for the digital space in Uganda?

I think the digital space is going to be highly controlled in Uganda, if the regime remains in power. They have seen examples like the Arab Spring, where citizens used social media to organize against regimes. When you look at what they're doing, they've equipped their security apparatus to build capacities of security personnel. We have seen Chinese and Israelis, we have seen the importation of malware, including FinFisher. So the regime is positioning itself to take control. And if I may say, the future of the Internet is uncertain and maybe it’s heading to dark times for Internet users – because people believe the Internet should be a free dashboard to exchange ideas.

 

So what has to be done from the perspective of civil society?

I think there has to be more awareness among different sectors to ensure that the Internet broadens civic space - not only with increasing participation in governance issues, but for those investing in the economy and those looking at socio-cultural issues. We also have to look at what the government is doing, so that we can position ourselves. If you say we want to build people's capacity in digital security, we will do so when we know how to circumvent FinFisher. 

We also need to look at lawyers, because if the regime wants to disorganize you, they can open charges. They can open as many cases as they want just to engage your brain, and you will be unable to concentrate in the perspective of an investigative journalist. But if you have lawyers who are aware of Internet issues, I believe they can support any victim and even challenge some of these laws, because they know most of the laws that we have do contravene the 1995 constitution.  These are for instance, right to privacy, freedom of expression and association.

 

What about technical issues with the Internet? There is still a digital divide between rural and urban areas.

That really has a lot to do with the government. The Ugandan government has positioned itself as wanting to use the Internet as an engine for development. We have tried to raise issues around digital divide. We said you cannot achieve this goal when the majority of Ugandans cannot access internet, equipment or devices. High taxes are imposed on these devices and the Internet is expensive for many Ugandans compared to other countries.

The infrastructure also remains poor. Electricity coverage is still very low. Access to computers and computer literacy is still very low. These are things the government needs to look at and start to narrowing the digital divide.

But we believe that even when they borrow money, for instance, there is a grant from the World Bank, it was meant for strengthening the national Internet backbone, but they have used it to connect the military/security installations. You ask yourself where is the value for money? This is money that must be paid back by the citizens.

 

What would you recommend media development organizations like DW Akademie do in order to give support and enable Ugandan institutions?

Ugandan media experiences the highest turnover seen in the world. This is because of threats, political interference and the circumstances in which the media works. Because there are new entrants into the profession every day, you should focus on building capacities in digital security. We also believe DW Akademie needs to expand working on how to help the media grow or develop with using technology. I think the traditional spaces are limiting us, so we need to take initiatives that can support and promote independent media and build careers. We also need to look at legal aspects. Although it is a bit controversial, we could find a partner that can organize lawyers. Also encryption has to become a daily thing in Uganda. It is not safe in Uganda to leave your communications windows open. Internally and externally, this should be rethought.

 

When you look at Africa as a whole, where does Uganda stand in comparison to other countries regarding digital participation?

I think we have new and good figures, because global statistics indicate that new connections stand at 17 percent annually. This tells you that there are more people yearning to connect to the Internet. You can see more Ugandans getting motivated, because we are still in the honeymoon phase. People don’t care very much about net neutrality. People don’t care about Internet governance. People really dying to get connected and that’s why when people heard about Internet.org, the Facebook initiative they said, ’let them come, we shall connect’. We have also heard that there are some careers promoting Zero Facebook and people feel excited. Also, there should be a central place with where all stakeholders meet to address Internet related issues. But it isn’t there. The government is ring-fencing Internet governance in this country.

I think Uganda can be ranked relatively high when it comes to new connections and less on participation. Because when you get down into what exactly happens after connecting to Internet, then that is something else.

(editor's note: certain parts have been paraphrased for clarity. )

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