Policing Social Media in Uganda

I read with trepidation in the Ugandan newspaper The Observer that the police are looking to monitor conversations on social media, which they blame for causing the uprisings in North Africa last year. According to the report, Inspector General of Police, Lieutenant General Kale Kayihura, claims that: "Social media is a good thing but can ...

MAX DELANY/AFP/Getty Images
MAX DELANY/AFP/Getty Images
MAX DELANY/AFP/Getty Images

I read with trepidation in the Ugandan newspaper The Observer that the police are looking to monitor conversations on social media, which they blame for causing the uprisings in North Africa last year.

According to the report, Inspector General of Police, Lieutenant General Kale Kayihura, claims that: "Social media is a good thing but can also be a bad thing because it is so quick in terms of dissemination of information... [It] is a tool that we as police forces must get interested in to make sure that it is not misused for crime, worse still for terrorism."

General Kayihura is notorious for cracking down on the Walk-to-Work protests which took place in Uganda in the spring of 2011 against rising food and fuel prices, as well as his handling of other public demonstrations. He is also blamed for the violent manner in which his officers arrested protesters, in particular opposition leader Dr. Kiiza Besigye.

I read with trepidation in the Ugandan newspaper The Observer that the police are looking to monitor conversations on social media, which they blame for causing the uprisings in North Africa last year.

According to the report, Inspector General of Police, Lieutenant General Kale Kayihura, claims that: "Social media is a good thing but can also be a bad thing because it is so quick in terms of dissemination of information… [It] is a tool that we as police forces must get interested in to make sure that it is not misused for crime, worse still for terrorism."

General Kayihura is notorious for cracking down on the Walk-to-Work protests which took place in Uganda in the spring of 2011 against rising food and fuel prices, as well as his handling of other public demonstrations. He is also blamed for the violent manner in which his officers arrested protesters, in particular opposition leader Dr. Kiiza Besigye.

With an eye to Uganda’s 50 years of independence (celebrated on 9 October), Ugandan journalist John K. Abimanyi of The Daily Monitor wrote an article wondering what the general’s father (John Kayihura, an anti-colonial activist in the 1950s) would say today of his son’s legacy. Abimanyi notes that the colonial government viewed the elder Kayihura’s work and writings as "harmful propaganda" and banned them from the country — much like how the younger Kayihura bans displays of public protest and discontent.

According to the Press Freedom Index, the media in Uganda is far from free; Uganda fell 43 places to 139 between 2011and 2012. With public gatherings banned, and with official news sources reporting incorrectly and dangerously on any dissent, netizens have turned to the Internet to freely post their opinions about developments in the country and in the world, and sometimes just to express themselves in general. On Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, conversations range from politics to economics and so on.

Social media also provides a mechanism for responding immediately to international issues — as well as to correct the misinformation circulating on the Internet about life here. When Invisible Children launched the Kony2012 video in March of this year, a group of Ugandan netizens responded with "Uganda Speaks," a web campaign aimed at recapturing Uganda’s narrative. When in June the Spanish prime minister made an offhand quip that "Spain is not Uganda" as his country tried to negotiate an additional financial bailout from the European Union, Ugandan netizens were quick to react with their own slogan: "#Uganda is not Spain."

If policing social media is used by the government to hear the opinions of its citizens in order to address these sentiments — and not to gather material to create accusations against them — then it is welcome.

Otherwise, my appeal to the government is to desist from further gagging its citizens’ freedom of expression more than it already has.

Jackee’s twitter handle is @jackeebatanda

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