Parliament recently passed the Uganda Communications Commission (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The Bill gives the Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) minister wide discretionary powers in a sector that is essential to freedoms of Ugandans. In amending section 93(1) to give the minister power to determine regulation guidelines for the telecommunications sector without seeking parliamentary approval, MPs inadvertently reneged on their constitutional mandate of conducting oversight on the Executive. The original spirit of Section 93(1) was to check the powers of the minister when making regulations that affect the right to freedom of speech and communication.
To contextualise the gravity of the matter, the minister now has powers to make regulations relating to the use of any communications station, fees payable upon the grant or renewal of a license, the classification or categories of licenses, etc. Sensing the danger that the Bill poses to citizens’ communication, journalists and civic groups raised a red flag over the minister’s overarching powers. Unwanted witness has, for example, filed a suit in court challenging the entire Bill.
The manner in which government rushed to table amendments to a law that was less than two years old is further evidence of the concerning spirit behind the amendments. If it could not even stand a test of two years, how long is it anticipated to last now after what many have termed as worrying amendments? In effect, the amendments give the minister power to make regulations over private broadcast stations and how proprietors of private stations should operate them. Last year, at the height of the election, government banned live coverage of Opposition political party activities.
The reasons given were not convincing. If such an action was done prior to the adjustments in the law, what will happen with the sweeping powers bestowed upon the ICT minister? In an era where live reporting is a norm, giving unchecked discretionary powers to the minister to draw guidelines gives the government extra legroom to muzzle aspects like live reporting. Previous unilateral actions such as the closure of CBS FM in 2009 and the Internet shut down on polling day last year by the UCC are evidence that checks and balances on guidelines regulating the telecommunications sector are critical in ensuring citizen’s rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
To justify the shut down of the Internet last year, the regulator claimed that the blockade was a judicious step taken to ensure national security but deciding whether national security is threatened or not cannot be at the whim of the UCC executive director or the minister. The representatives of the people while legislating in Parliament need to reflect on whether the amendments are pro-citizen or pro-State. This may re-awaken their conscience of accountability to the electorate and their own survival in politics. Incidents of politicians being denied airtime on broadcast shows, with broadcast stations often crumbling under stifling directives from government officials are rife. MPs have been victims of such high-handed orders of government officials and they can still be.
Already, ordinary citizens cannot participate in live radio debate programmes (bimeeza) after government slapped a ban on them in early 2005. It is only fair and prudent for all actions taken in the name of protecting the citizens and the security of the country to be subjected to Parliament approval. Just before President Museveni came out to extend the deadline for SIM card registration, we witnessed the preliminary effects of the Amending the UCC Act. The minister of ICT seemed to act in contempt of a Parliamentary motion that was moved by Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Ms Winnie Kiiza, to allow for an extension of the SIM card registration and verification exercise.
Notwithstanding the motion, the minister directed UCC to switch off all unverified SIM cards, causing panic and tension among the public. Before the President assents to the amendment Bill, it is my hope and prayer that he returns it back to the house to ensure that the Constitutional oversight role of Parliament is reflected in Bill. Mr Kaheru is the coordinator, Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda.
By Crispy Kaheru
This story was Published by The Daily Monitor