Slight improvements in Uganda’s Internet Freedom

Internet freedom in Uganda improved incrementally in 2017, even as more governments worldwide imposed greater restrictions on internet content and manipulated the online information landscape, according to the Freedom on the Net 2017 report released last week by Freedom House. Vibrant civil society activism on digital rights issues and the absence of deliberate mobile or fixed internet networks disruptions provided a relatively freer internet freedom environment for Ugandan citizens compared to the previous year.

“Ugandans have become more vocal in advocating for their rights to a free and open internet, and their continued vigilance is necessary for pushing back against any further restrictions that may arise,” said Mai Truong, program manager and Africa analyst for Freedom on the Net.

Nonetheless, Uganda’s internet freedom still merits scrutiny due to the government’s growing intolerance to online critics. In 2017, both state and non-state actors increasingly sought to remove political content from social media platforms.

About 45 percent of the Ugandan population has access to the internet, according to the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC). The growing use of mobile broadband for browsing and new investments in the country’s information and communications technology (ICT) industry have fueled Uganda’s internet development.

“Increasing access to the internet in Uganda has engendered new challenges in fighting cyber-related crimes such as hate speech, cyber fraud, fake news, and child pornography, among others,” said Lillian Nalwoga, president of Uganda’s Internet Society (ISOC) chapter and author of the Uganda report in Freedom on the Net 2017. “However, in addressing these challenges, the Ugandan government has often violated citizens’ fundamental freedoms online.” For instance, legislation such as the Computer Misuse Act, 2011—although developed to fight cybercrimes—has been used to arrest and prosecute voices of dissent.

Government representatives are also continuously warning online users to desist from “abusing” online platforms and has called for the filtering of social media content to curb abusive speech. “While addressing harmful content online is necessary, efforts must be done within the rule of law and with respect to human rights, especially freedom of expression and privacy,” Nalwoga said.

Freedom House ranked Uganda as “Partly Free” in its 2017 study of internet freedom in 65 countries. Only 2 out of 12 countries assessed in Sub-Saharan Africa ranked “Free”—South Africa and Kenya. Since June 2016, 32 of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net saw internet freedom deteriorate. Most notable declines were documented in Ukraine, Egypt, Turkey, and Ethiopia.

Global Findings:

Governments manipulated social media to undermine democracy: Governments in 30 countries of the 65 countries assessed attempted to control online discussions. The practice has become significantly more widespread and technically sophisticated over last few years.
State censors targeted mobile connectivity: An increasing number of governments have restricted mobile internet service for political or security reasons. Half of all internet shutdowns in the past year were specific to mobile connectivity.
More governments restricted live video: As live video gained popularity on social media platforms, internet users faced restrictions or attacks for live streaming in at least nine countries, often to prevent streaming of antigovernment protests.
Technical attacks against news outlets, opposition, and rights defenders increased: Cyberattacks against government critics were documented in 34 out of 65 countries. Many governments took additional steps to restrict encryption, leaving citizens further exposed.
New restrictions on virtual private networks (VPNs): 14 countries now restrict tools used to circumvent censorship in some form and six countries introduced new restrictions, either legal bans or technical blocks on VPN websites or network traffic.
Physical attacks against netizens and online journalists expanded dramatically: The number of countries that featured physical reprisals for online speech increased by 50 percent over the past year—from 20 to 30 of the countries assessed. In eight countries, people were murdered for their online expression.

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