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 06/11/2021.
Ministry of Health suspends mass vaccination program amidst vaccine shortage
The Ugandan Ministry of Health spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyoona announced that the country has suspended its mass vaccination program against Covid-19 while awaiting the arrival of more vaccines. The remaining doses will be given to priority groups like health workers and the elderly. Since March, nearly 749,000 people have been vaccinated using AstraZeneca jab. President Museveni has said the country will soon be receiving a total of 475,000 more doses and will buy more from China, Russia, Cuba, and the United States.
Ugandan Law Society petitions for the free movement of lawyers
The Ugandan Law Society has petitioned the Ministry of Health to exclude lawyers from the newly implemented restrictions on movement in the country. ULS President Pheona Nabasa Wall said that 95% of the country’s lawyers are based in Kampala and must travel to other districts in order to represent their clients. The free movement of advocates is essential to safeguarding the right to counsel and protecting against rights violations that may result from Covid-19 lockdown measures. Ugandan Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo issued a circular suspending all court hearings in the country for 42 days, with few exceptions, and ordered the use of emailing, virtual hearings, and other forms of contactless communication.
Ugandan Revenue Authority returns Bobi Wine’s bulletproof car
The Ugandan Revenue Authority has returned Bobi Wine’s bulletproof vehicle following orders from President Museveni to release it from state custody. URA claimed the value of the vehicle needed to be reassessed for tax purposes and impounded it for reinspection. According to Wine, the vehicle was a donation from supporters abroad to help protect himself in the aftermath of the contested January presidential election.
President Museveni implements another Covid-19 lockdown
Ugandan President Museveni implemented another lockdown amidst a second wave of Covid-19 cases in the country. On June 6, the Ministry of Health reported the highest number of Covid-19 cases since the pandemic first broke in March 2020, registering 1,259 new cases and bringing the total tally to 52,935. The lockdown began on June 7, suspending all school, communal, and religious gatherings for 42 days. Beginning June 10, the ban will also bar all public transport between and across districts, with exceptions for cargo trucks and registered travel and service vehicles.
Over 2,100 arrested for breaking new lockdown restrictions
Over 2,100 people remain in police custody after being arrested for breaking the recently implemented Covid-19 lockdown while found in bars and other places of entertainment. Police spokesman Fred Enanga said the police have impounded over 450 cars and 2,000 motorcycles from people found driving past 9 pm. Motorcyclists have been ordered to stop working by 6pm, and non-essential drivers by 9pm. Operations Director Edward Ochom has given instructions to arrest any non-essential workers who are still on the road past 9pm.
44 people arrested during a wedding ceremony due to Covid-19 policies
38 men and 6 women were recently arrested during a marriage ceremony (kwanjula) in Kampala. They were charged with doing a negligent act likely to spread an infectious disease. Spokesperson of the Criminal Investigations Directorate described the event as the “wedding party of a gay couple.” All 44 individuals were later granted bail.
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