UCC maintains licence requirement for online publishers is legal

"The petition is devoid of any legal merit and an abuse of the legal process," UCC said in a response by its lawyers.

COURT | Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has told a civil society organisation that its petition to the Constitutional Court seeking permanent injunction against licensing and regulation of online media publishers and bloggers is misguided.

In a response to a petition Unwanted Witness lodged before the appellant court registrar last month, UCC said the NGO did not disclose any specific issues for the Constitutional Court to interpret.

“The petition is devoid of any legal merit and an abuse of the legal process,” UCC said in a response by its lawyers.

Sendo Cleaners

The communication regulator’s affidavit, drawn and signed by its senior legal officer, Julius Mboizi, on April 5, also says Unwanted Witness’ legal representatives in the case have no right or capacity to bring an action or to appear in a court.

Unwanted Witness, an NGO that works to secure uncensored online platforms for activists, netizens, bloggers, freelance journalists and writers to promote human rights, is represented in the case by MS Kiiza and Mugisha Advocates.

In its petition, the NGO said UCC’s directives that all online publishers, news platforms and all those offering online data communication services apply and obtain its authorisation to do so in unconstitutional.

“This directive contravenes Article 29 and 41 of the Constitution as it infringes, violates and compromises freedom of expression,” the petition said.

Unwanted Witness also took exception to UCC’s directives and administrative forms requiring online publishers to furnish the communications regulator with their business address, real names and other details before registration and licensing.

The petitioner says this is an affront that illegally truncates and threatens the publishers’ and bloggers’ right to privacy in contravention of Article 27 of the Constitution.

“The mandatory disclosure of an individual’s online identity can only be ordered by courts, which are best placed to properly balance the rights to anonymous expression with other interests,” the affidavit, sworn by Dorothy Mukasa, chief executive of Unwanted Witness, said.

The petitioners asked the Constitutional Court to permanently stay the implementation of UCC’s directives that indiscriminately requires all online publishers to obtain a licence from the communications regulator.

The petitioner also asked the court to declare the cost of the suit is borne by the co-accused.

UCC kicks back

As expected, UCC, jointly sued with the Attorney General, has returned to the court with the horse’s back kick, asking that the petition be dismissed along with all its demands.

The communications regulator told the court that its operations are legally defined by the Communication Act 2013 that established the agency and mandates it to monitor, supervise, regulate and control communication service.

UCC said asking publishers to provide their personal information and address does not in any way compromise their rights.

“The details required is basic generic information about owners of a business engaged in data communication,” the regulator said. “This information and other details are only meant to facilitate UCC know the person obtaining authorisation to engage in data communication.”

The regulator also said Unwanted Witness drafted their petition out of ignorance about the regulatory framework of UCC, adding that the petitioner had not demonstrated how compelling online publishers to seek authorisation to operate infringed on their rights and freedom.

UCC asked the court to dismiss the petition with costs.

Over the last decade, UCC, under the leadership of Godfrey Mutabazi, has adopted a strict regulatory stance that seeks to box all broadcasting within what the communications regulator defines as “acceptable” in as far as meeting minimum broadcasting standards is concerned.

In March 2018, UCC issued a directive requiring all online publishers, news platforms and all others offering online data communication services to apply and obtain authorisation from the communications regulator.

In one of its latest controversial directives related to the March 2018 order on licensing to publishers, UCC ordered Daily Monitor to “immediately suspend” its website for failing to register it as per the new directive issued to all online publishers last year.

In the directive, UCC appeared to have been taking it on the newspaper for running a story about a native healer suing Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga over nonpayment for services allegedly rendered decades ago.

Kadaga claimed it was “fake news” despite the story relying on an affidavit before the High Court in Jinja District.

In December, UCC suspended Koona programme on Spark TV until the regulator was “satisfied that the station has instituted the necessary measures to ensure that the show meets the regulatory standards.”

It also directed that the presenter of Koona, Miles Rwamiti, and producer suspended for failure to control panelist who nearly went to blows on the show.

In making these directives, the communications regulator says uses its mandate of monitoring, inspecting, licensing, control and regulation of communications activities that are provided for in Section 5 of the Uganda Communications Act 2013.

The Act also mandates UCC to set standards and enforce compliance related to content.

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