Freedom of expression crackdown in Uganda, why Social Media is not helpful.

Over the past one week, I have closely followed the story about the
recent media crackdown of one of Uganda’s leading independent newspapers TheDaily Monitor , RedPepper a tabloid and a couple of radio stations. I have, on daily
basis streamed local news via NTV Uganda ,
followed the social media buzz and read blogs from some of Uganda Journalist like Charles Onyango Obbo and Angelo Izama regarding the media besiege of 20th May 2013 in Kampala Uganda.
With many personalized African regimes, where you easily get thrown in
jail for publishing news that holds the government accountable, there is no
doubt that good journalists become an endangered species. Main stream
Journalist have become an easily target and have been victims of media crackdowns
with so many being thrown in jail and threatened or have their licenses
withdrawn by the communications regulator Like Rosebell Kagumire a Journalist and blogger shares.

 Snap shot of tweets about the Besiege on 20/5/13
Because of such risks, the advent of social media has shaped and continues to shape the
experience of news because, it not only enables real time reporting but also creates millions of witnesses to hold Governments accountable. We all witnessed
its impact during the Arab spring and how the narrative about Kenya is Changing
though an online movement on Twitter dubbed #KOT [Kenyans on twitter] who will not waste any chance
to correct  international media like CNN for wrongly broadcasting news about the various situations in Kenya. All
these have been very successful but the same approach has failed to yield
anything tangible in Uganda yet a reasonable number of Ugandan use social
The obvious reasons will be attributed to issues of numbers; how
many people use social media in Uganda,what social media platforms are used, if any, what they are used for, if there are rules governing usage? Etc. While I personally agree that big numbers are essential for advocacy, they do not always guarantee positive impact. But for those
who use social media (which is quite a reasonable number) how is their online activism and advocacy
shaping and or impacting on the media freedom debate in Uganda? 

This is why I think social media is/has not been helpful in Uganda

  1. For
    many of us, action has become what we think. We have chosen to use social
    media as platforms to express our grievances and only stop at that, and
    then leave it for few ‘brave’ ones to act. And unfortunately, only few
    brave people have acted. This is why I think that, social media has not
    been an effective tool in advocating for positive social change or
    creating positive impact in instances where the government has silenced
    citizens who question its mandate, those who express their opinion freely
    and those who threaten its existence in one way or another through freedom
    of expression. 

  1. We
    advocate for connectivity without pushing for freedom yet at the back of
    our minds, we know that this cannot work. In many places worldwide, ordinary people
    have been tortured and continue to be toured because of censorship. Without
    freedom, many Ugandans are hesitant to participate in sensitive issues
    that jeopardize their existence, so they choose to follow the “bandwagon” effect and
    share information randomly without good coordination such that at the end of it all,
    no one is responsible for the online buzz and therefore one is to blame
    or held accountable because somehow everyone is responsible.
  1. When
    you look at a list of Ugandans on twitter
    you will notice that these are elite and mainly urban dwellers that have
    jobs to protect and fear to get on the wrong side of government. You will
    hardly find members of parliament, the police, ministers and other
    legislators with personal accounts that they manage and use to engage.
    For online campaigns to be successful in real life, there must be a
    leader, someone to guide the discussion and move it forward, someone to
    keep the interest strong right from the start to the end, to keep the
    online communities of practice focused and not easily swayed away by other
    “breaking news” a common trend on social media platform and above all someone
    ready to take up the biggest part of responsibility and willing to be
    accountable. We do not have many of such people in Uganda when it comes to sensitive
    issues that that are linked to or involve the government.
  1. The
    communication regulator, Uganda communication Commission (UCC) claims to recognize the fundamental importance of ICTs in all policies
    for development and says that it creates the conditions for the fullest
    participation by all sections of the population, yet the same regulator is
    quick to shut down radio stations and threaten to block social media
    websites when citizens use the internet to question issues of governance
    like it currently is with freedom of expression. In 2011, UCC,
    through Internet service providers attempted to block social media websites twitter and face book during the presidential elections and Walk to work riots. Major telecoms in Uganda
    were also accused of violating customer privacy because they were censoring SMS messages with key words like Egypt, Mubarak during the Arab
    spring. These actions by the country’s communications regulator raise suspicion among online internet users making them worry about their
    privacy thereby hindering online activism that could later on become physical
    Aljazeera’s Malcom Webb (R) runs away from a teargas Canister during the journalist demo in Kampala, Uganda on 28/5/13: Photo by Isaac Kisamani 
    Like Chris Obore an
    investigative Journalist with the Daily Monitor recently said during the
    2013 Internet freedom Forum in Sweden , that “Until internet begins to determine politics in my Government, it
    will still remain useless for so many”. It is true that very little advantage can be taken of the opportunities
    social media provides if the policies needed to provide citizens with meaning
    and purpose are not conducive. And because we still have a small online
    community in Uganda, the newspapers and radio stations are effective ways
    of accessing relevant and timely information by the populace. We need our journalists to be protected because they are society watch dogs. Threatening them and beating
    them affects us all. We need to be informed so that we can question and hold
    our government accountable because we are all stakeholders. Journalists surely deserve better.
  • Anonymous

    What you and i do not want to admit is that we are not sure of our safety. f i write something on social media and get picked up and jailed, nobody will notice and none will defend me. I worry that if so much can happen to the Monitor Publications in spite of it being part of the Aga Khan's businesses in Uganda, how much mre can be done to a nobody like me. I am sure that very many people are scared and dare not cross the line.

    Such is the reality of this nasty situation. We all know that security is only for the high and mighty, not for the ordinary blogger.

    • I did admit that among the reasons why social media cannot be helpful during such situations. Check the 2nd point. Thanks for the comment though.

  • Action first before the noise on social media, everyone is bold when tweeting, but not bold when walking towards the real action.

    • Exactly my first point. we have very few "brave" ones.

  • Thanks for the good piece, Maureen. I was puzzled by the latest edition of The Independent: Mwenda claims that 90% of Ugandans get news via social media, and that Newspapers don't contribute much. That's definitely untrue. On average, a newspaper is read by at least 6 persons. With simple maths, the influence is much more than online folks, who largely post about Bivulus and songs they are listening to.

  • Thank you for the comment Fredrick. It definitely cannot be 90%. Not even 90% of the population in Kampala alone gets news via social media. Community radios are the easiest way to access information by majority. it's just a handful of urban dwellers who use social media and Majority of these are in Kampala the capital city.

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  • As a Journalist, in Uganda and a frequent on social media, this piece couldn't speak any better for me. The freedom of expression is quite a broad topic to discuss in one comment but lets make an attempt, Social media is an alternative source of sharing information, though many times as traditional media journalists we have despised the level of expertise, the accuracy of information and the ability to communicate held by social media users, we have slowly come to terms with the fact that there will always be a newspaper published on social media and we can only help shape it.
    Whether the crackdown on media houses would affect the freedom of expression, I partially agree, it limits the level of accurate information to be shared and as well denies journalists the ability to communicate to those that have not embraced social media.
    In my view, social media as an alternative form of news distribution is still lacking and despite any form of increase in Government/leaders participation online, the level of debate on Uganda's social media would be of little 'effective use' in shaping governance. Though I will agree, a strand of hope in citizen journalism is slowly shimmering through. Nice piece Maureen.