Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has started with the compulsory registration of influencers and online publications operating in the East African country. This is executing on a notice issued by the UCC in March 2018 which stated that online publishers (including influencers, online video broadcasters, onlie radio stations, etc.) are required to pay a $20 registration fee in order to obtain a license that will permit them to "carry out their communication and commercial services online" in Uganda.

This is latest move implemented by authorities in Uganda to indirectly limit freedom of speech online following the introduction of the infamous OTT (social media) tax in 2018.

"Online publishers and influencers who have reached a capacity of sharing communication content and also using the online publication for commercial business are required to register with the regulator that is UCC. With the growing entity of online publishers, we realized it was important to register these individuals so as they are mindful of the law and regulations as they publish their content to the public," Ibrahim Bbossa, Head of Public Relations at UCC, is reported to have said.

The notice issued by Uganda Communications Commission during March 2018 stating that online data communication service providers need to apply and obtain a licence in order to operate in the country.

History of stifling online communications

Uganda, over the past few years, has had a colourful history of various measures it has looked at (and in some cases implemented) implementing to stifle online freedom of speech.

In 2017 authorities in the country indicated that they had ordered what they called a "pornography blocking machine." Despite several statements that the said machine would be arriving soon in Uganda, it never materialized. As such, policymakers resorted to setting up a pornography control committee that was tasked with reviewing and issuing directives to Internet Service Providers regarding which websites were to be blocked as they were deemed pornographic. Some critics in Uganda argued that the so called porn detector machine was possibly part of a more sinister plan by the government to spy on citizens.

Members of Uganda's pornography control committee being sworn in.

Not too long after that in 2018, Uganda's government introduced what is popularly known as social media tax (OTT tax). The law required everyone in Uganda to pay 200 Ugandan shillings, equivalent to $0.05 or £0.04, for using social media and instant messaging platforms such Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Skype, and many more. The main reason as to why the government has decided to levy the tax on the use of social media said it was because social media and messaging apps were being used by people to spread gossip, primarily - prejudice, opinions, and insults.

Screenshot of menu presented to mobile users in Uganda prompting them to pay "OTT Tax"before they are able to use OTT services.

Added to this, Uganda has also had its fair share of Internet restrictions and shutdowns around election periods and during protests.

Difficult to enforce

What Uganda is implementing is similar to what Egypt and Tanzania have implemented. However, as in both cases, it is not easy to enforce such a regulation and to clarify how it applies to online publications and influencers who do not have a physical presence in Uganda but whose content is consumed by people in Uganda.

The other consideration is that despite an ISP blocking a specific website, people in Uganda could still use a VPN service to appear to be accessing the website from a different location and more importantly to obfuscate their web browsing.

Above all, the move is more than likely another way for Uganda's government to censor influencers and online publications who speak against authorities.

"Looking at the example of Egypt that registers online publishers who have more than 50,000 followers, as for UCC, we took a different strategy from them as we are considering registering online publishers who use the online space for communication services, broadcasting services and communication content," said Bbossa.

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