Protecting Your Voice In A Pandemic:
A COVID-19 Free Expression Information Center
In response to—and under the cover of—the COVID-19 global pandemic, governments around the world have implemented strict surveillance measures and exacerbated preexisting restrictions on free expression. PEN America has created this page to help journalists, writers, human rights defenders, and protestors equip themselves with the knowledge and tools to protect their rights and continue their important work. Below, you will find the latest news and key developments from Uganda—to learn more about what is happening on the ground in other countries, click through our pages on Ukraine, Myanmar, and Honduras.
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Last updated on 07/16/2021.
COVID Surge Continues, Appeals to the Constitutional Court, and Other News
While Uganda is still battling the current wave of COVID-19, new infections have dropped to about 400 cases daily. Reports from the Monitor found that about five out of every ten people who have tested positive for the virus in Uganda are from Kampala. The National Planning Authority (NPA) has stated, however, that they expect a deadly wave of the virus to peak later this month. The Ministry of Education has also initiated a process to identify schools that concealed COVID-19 cases. This month, the country is set to receive about 650,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine from the World Health Organization COVAX facility. So far, at least 1 million people out of the targeted 21.9 million have received the COVID-19 jab. According to data from the Ministry of Health, the total number of deaths in Uganda due to COVID-19 now stands at more than 2,000.
With the COVID-19 lockdown in place, the police have arrested at least 150 people for violating SOPs in Mbarara city as well as tightened operations for boda boda riders. In the past week alone, at least 73 people were killed, many through mob justice. In other news, the Attorney General has filed an appeal to challenge the Constitutional Court ruling against the powers of the Court Martial. At the beginning of July, the Constitutional Court had ruled that the Court Martial does not have power to try civilians. A number of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have petitioned Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo regarding the impact of COVID-19 prevention measures on human rights and the freedoms of Ugandan citizens. Throughout July, there have also been repeated cases of violence and physical aggression towards journalists and many are concerned about an increasingly fragile relationship between the State and the media. Lastly, the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) has thus advised journalists to prioritize their mental health during the lockdown and pandemic.
COVID-19 Pandemic Becoming a Major Stress Test for Uganda
Some see this wave of COVID as a major stress test for the country that could lead to economic and political crisis. On June 29, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a 36-month arrangement under the Extended Credit Facility (ECF) to grant Uganda about Ush 3.5 trillon (or US $1 billion) to support COVID-19 recovery and foster private sector growth. Members of the finance and health ministries have drafted a statutory instrument that would fine families, churches, and other public places that fail to adhere to COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures. Additionally, in only one week, police in North Kyoga collected about 2,78,000 million Shillings from motorists and drivers who had defied COVID-19 SOPs in Lango sub-region. A number of MSME (Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises) operators have asked security personnel to be more humane and less brutal as they enforce COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
In other news, Moses Mulumba—the Executive Director of the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD)— has petitioned the High Court in Kampala, requesting intervention for the government’s failure to regulate high medical bills charged by private health facilities for COVID-19 treatment. The Uganda Police Force (UPF) had also decided to increase procurement of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), to improve surveillance in response to crime.
Increase in COVID-19 Cases Amid Ongoing Lockdown in Uganda
Following the lockdown that Museveni put in place earlier in June, Uganda is still facing an unprecedented increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths, as the Delta variant spreads throughout the country. According to the COVID-19 Tracker from Reuters, there have been a total of 79,434 recorded infections and 989 coronavirus-related deaths in Uganda since the pandemic began. After the highest daily average of cases were reported on June 14, there have been approximately 861 new infections reported each day. Some district authorities have connected the rise of cases throughout June to infected learners and children who returned home from school on June 7. As of June 23, more than 200 MPs and Parliament staff have tested positive for the virus. More than 100 health workers in the Elgon and Bukedi sub-regions have also contracted COVID-19, likely due to lack of or inadequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Amid rising cases, the UK has blocked Ugandan nationals from traveling to Britain. Only “British and Irish nationals, as well as third-country nationals with residence rights in the UK,” will be permitted to travel there from Uganda.
Nationwide COVID-19 vaccination resumed this week after the government received 175,200 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the French government. Priority has been given to health care workers as well as those receiving the second shot. According to health ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyoona, Uganda is set to receive an additional 1,260,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine between July and August. Moreover, President Museveni has also announced plans to refill 25,000 oxygen cylinders daily in order to meet the rising demand from Covid-19 patients.
Police General clarifies travel permits and a Kampala-based lawyer sues government over partial lockdown
Inspector General of Police, Edward Ochom has clarified the issuance of cross-district travel permits. Those seeking travel clearance must show proof of a negative Covid-19 test result to a district task force team and adhere to all standard operating procedures. Another condition of cross-district travel is that vehicles may not carry more than three people, including the driver, and all passengers must wear face masks. Kampala-based lawyer Male Mabirizi petitioned the High Court in an effort to strike down the partial lockdown measures issued by President Museveni and Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo. These measures include a 42 day closure of schools, the suspension of court hearings, and the banning of inter-district travel, public gatherings, and religious services. Mabirizi’s application charged that the measures issued do not fall within the scope of their administrative functions and are not supported by any legislative instruments. Mabirizi also argued that while the courts are closed, people continue to be arrested. Mabirizi is seeking a permanent order restraining the government from implementing these measures.
Blockades and protests occur in wake of partial lockdown measures
There has been a great deal of confusion, discontent, and disorder as a result of President Museveni’s partial lockdown measures, with many civilians being severely punished when found in violation. On June 14, hundreds of people were left stranded after security forces blocked pedestrians and bicycle riders from crossing the bridges between the districts of Kinja and Buikwe. Jinja district police commander, Maurice Niyonzima said the blockade followed the new national directives restricting inter-district travel. Only essential workers, patients, or people who verified employment were allowed to cross, the rest were denied entry. On June 15, a boda boda rider named John Kugonza was shot dead by a security officer at a police checkpoint at Kibede Trading Centre for allegedly flouting the inter-district travel ban. Due to President Museveni’s temporary ban on inter-district travel, only essential workers and those going to hospitals are allowed to cross the borders between districts. Residents from Butaleja District protested a new directive issued by the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) to ban “unnecessary movement” in trading centers and towns. Residents argued the directive was arbitrary because it was included amongst the partial lockdown measures issued by President Museveni earlier this month. The RDC has deployed the police and village chairpersons to enforce the directive and arrest anyone found loitering. The RDC has mandated Covid-19 testing for residents.
42-day closure of schools introduces many learning hurdles and travel barriers for students
On June 14, the Ministry of Education started airing lessons on various radio stations across the country, beginning with Primary Four and Five learners. while the timetables for other groups are being formulated. Both government and privately-owned stations will be used between the hours of 8am and 1pm for the next four weeks. The Ministry of Education conducted a similar effort in March last year, with a month of lessons hosted on radio channels and TV stations. However, the lessons ended after many students, especially those in rural areas, could not access radios or television sets at the time. Over 1,500 students have been transported home after being left stranded in bus parks. President Museveni’s closure of schools and ban on inter-district travel had left many students attending schools in Kampala in a rush to return to their homes in other districts. Both hikes in transportation fares and congestion on the roads had made it difficult for many students to make it home before the lockdown measures took effect. The Director of Basic and Secondary Education at the Ministry of Education, Ismail Mulindaw said the government intervened, using buses from different agencies, and offered all students free transport to their home destinations before the deadline of June 10.
Below you will find significant governmental, civil societal, and technological trends shaping the state of freedom of expression in Uganda today.
MUSEVENI SUSPENDS DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE FACILITY, FUNDER OF CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS
President Museveni recently ordered the immediate suspension of all operations of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), the principal funder of many NGOs in Uganda. DGF is financed by the European Union and a number of European governments to provide support in the areas of democracy, human rights, and rule of law. Alarmed by the decision, director of Africa programs at Freedom House Jon Temin stated that the fund is “critical to the operations of many Ugandan civic organizations mandated to advance the rule of law and good governance and some government bodies, including the Uganda Human Rights Commission.”
UGANDA ISSUES NEW DIRECTIVES TO SCRUTINIZE FOREIGN JOURNALISTS
On December 10, 2020, the Ugandan government announced new directives for journalists working for foreign media. Paul Ekochu, chairman of the government’s Media Council, said that journalists working in Uganda for foreign outlets would have to register anew and submit to a vetting process, or else risk having criminal charges brought against them. He also recalled all accreditation cards possessed by journalists working for foreign media, stating that new ones with security features will be issued once the journalists re-register. Human rights activists are denouncing these new regulations as dangerous and disingenuous.
UGANDA USING HUAWEI SURVEILLANCE TECHNOLOGY TO CRACK DOWN ON PROTESTORS
According to Quartz Africa, Ugandan police officials have confirmed their use of surveillance technology supplied by the Chinese company Huawei – including facial recognition, license plate readers, and a national CCTV system – to identify and track down individuals involved in the protests and riots stemming from Bobi Wine’s arrest. There is growing concern these technologies are being used to suppress the individual freedoms and rights of those opposing Museveni’s government.
UGANDA BEGINS NATIONWIDE PROCESS TO DISTRIBUTE BIOMETRIC ID CARDS
The National Identification Registration Authority of Uganda (NIRA) announced that it will begin distributing digital ID cards to citizens who have successfully applied and enrolled their biometric data starting on November 23. In 2019, Uganda secured the services of Muehlbauer for the production of these ID cards. Many have expressed concern over Uganda’s National ID program, seeing it as an undermining of the right to privacy and an attack on the right to communicate anonymously.
Ugandan Government to License Online Posts, Violating Freedom of Expression
On September 7, 2020, The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) released a public notice that all persons planning to publish online information or broadcasting must first obtain authorization from UCC by October 5, 2020. According to Amnesty International, these vague regulations are “effectively criminalizing the right to freedom of expression online” and “will turn social media into a minefield.”
Ugandan Government Appeals Court Ruling on Section 8 of POMA
In April 2020, the Attorney General filed a notice of appeal on the recent Constitutional Court ruling that nullified Section 8 of Uganda’s Public Order Management Act. According to Daily Monitor, the Attorney General expressed his dissatisfaction with the Judgement which held that Section 8 violates both freedom of assembly and the right to demonstrate.
Ugandan Court Nullifies Law Restricting Freedom of Assembly
Judges of the Constitutional Court annulled Section 8 of Uganda’s Public Order Management Act 2013 in a 4-1 decision, declaring it illegal and unconstitutional. The law restricted freedoms of association and assembly, requiring organizers to notify the police of any planned public gatherings. It had been utilized for years as a tool of repression and granted police excessive powers to crack down on protests from the political opposition.
- Unwanted Witness is a Ugandan civil society human rights organization that works to protect internet freedoms and digital rights.
- National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD-U) facilitates information and resource sharing among human rights defenders in Uganda and works to advance the safety, coordination, and collaboration of HRDs.
- DefendDefenders is a regional NGO for the East and Horn of Africa, based in Uganda, that was established to strengthen the work of HRDs and to reduce their vulnerability to the risk of persecution.
- Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) is an Ugandan NGO devoted to women’s use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the advancement of gender equality.
COVID-19 and FREE EXPRESSION:
Reports and Trackers
- Unwanted Witness: State of Digital Rights in Uganda in 2019 Report
- Human Rights Network for Journalists: Uganda 2019 Press Freedom Index Report
- Unwanted Witness: State of Security for Human Rights Defenders in a Digital Era
- ACME: Ugandan Newspaper Coverage of the Covid-19 Pandemic – June 2020
- Freedom House: Democracy Under Lockdown
- Article 19: The Global Expression Report 2019/2020
- University of Oxford: Coronavirus Government Response Tracker
- ICNL: COVID Civic Freedom Tracker
- Varieties of Democracy: Pandemic Backsliding Tracker
- PEN America: Online Harassment Field Manual
- Global Cyber Alliance: Cybersecurity Toolkit for Journalists
- Security In-a-Box: Digital Security Tools and Tactics
- Consumer Reports: Security Planner
- Tactical Tech: Holistic Security Manual for HRDs
- Front Line Defenders: Workbook on Security – Practical Steps for HRDs at Risk