But UCC has also targeted opposition legislators in other ways. The most hit appears to be celebrated musician Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, who is the new Kyadondo East MP.
Media houses, allegedly acting on orders or cues from UCC, have blocked him. On Sept.28, for example, he was scheduled to appear on NTV’s political talk show `On the Spot’ but was blocked. On Sept. 30, he was supposed to be on Capital FM’s `Capital Gang’ but he was also blocked.
“I was later informed that the radio was directed by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and received phone-calls from security operatives not to host me,” Kyagulanyi posted on his Facebook page, “I was called by other radio and TV stations and they confirmed that they received the same order- with threats that if I am hosted, they risked being closed.”
Oskar Semweya-Musoke, the Capital Gang host explained to his audience for Kyagulanyi’s absence with this tweet: “We received phone calls that stopped us from hosting @HEBobinwine on #CapitalGang today.”
Kyagulanyi was one of the opposition MPs evicted from parliament over the melee that erupted during the tabling of Magyezi’s Private Member’s Bill to lift the presidential age limit.
Kyagulanyi has appeared to be targeted by UCC since he won a by-election towards the end of June as an independent MP and immediately adopted anti-President Yoweri Museveni rhetoric.
There were even rumours that UCC had instructed radio stations not to play his latest hit, `Freedom,’ which allegedly fans violence among the public as it calls upon Ugandans to rise up because saving “Our nation is a responsibility of all of us the children of Uganda.”
He sings about how, “Ugandans are fed up of those who oppress our lives (sic) and everything that takes away our rights.”
Some of the lyrics translated from Luganda, a widely spoken local dialect are: “Uganda seems to be moving backwards; rise up friends because we know that saving our nation is a responsibility of all of us the children of Uganda.
“No matter your age, sex, religion, and tribe; educated or uneducated, this is a revolution; whether you are a doctor, farmer, teacher, policeman, lawyer, soldier, taxi driver or student, Ugandans in the Diaspora or bodaboda rider, rise up and don’t give up.”
But Pamela Ankunda, the Head Public Relations at UCC, told The Independent on Nov. 10 that UCC has not banned Kyagulanyi’s song because the agency’s mandate does not go that far.
“We regulate content and not people,” she said.
She said all UCC has done is remind broadcasters of their liability in case their platform is used to air content that are contrary to the laws and minimum broadcasting regulations.
“That is very different from saying, don’t host this person on the talk show,” she said.
Even if UCC had banned the song, Kyagulanyi has already vowed not to respect its directives. He says the regulatory authority’s decisions depict double standards and bias. He said artistes who sing songs that support the NRM regime are never barred from doing so.
“I have fundamental rights of singing and speaking about anything without seeking permission from anyone,” Kyagulanyi says.
Ssempala says UCC’s suspension of people from appearing on certain media houses’ talk shows is blatant abuse of their right to expression.
“It is under the influence of politicians who want to shut up all voices of dissent and curtail the free flow of critical information,” he says, “All that is overstepping their mandate.”
Recently, UCC has blocked journalists from covering the activities of striking doctors. In the past, it has ordered media houses not to do live broadcasts of Walk-to-Work protests, the Kasese massacre during the attack on the palace of the Rwenzururu king, Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere last November and the subsequent trial early this year. In the February presidential elections, UCC blocked social media platforms and mobile money networks. The shutdown remained in place until the afternoon of Sunday, Feb.21 when President Museveni was declared winner.
The UCC said access to social media platforms like Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook via mobile phones and the mobile money networks had been temporarily blocked citing national security concerns during the election period.
The telecom firm, MTN, confirmed that UCC directed it to block social media and mobile money services due to a threat to public order and safety. Critics say UCC’s mandate does not give it such powers.
The UCC’s primary mandate is to regulate and grow the media in Uganda,” says Ssempala, but it has since taken to controlling and restricting the media freedom.
“This is complete abuse which is politically motivated,” he says, “We don’t want UCC to control the media in a negative manner,” he told The Independent on Nov.13.
Sseggona also says UCC is harassing media houses by refusing to renew their licenses.
“As we speak, 75% of media houses in the country do not have valid licences because UCC wants to close them at the slightest opportunity under the guise of lack of valid licence,” he said.
On the issue of delayed licenses, Otunnu told The Independent that the process has been complicated because of transiting from analogue transmission to digital television.
Media experts say internet shutdowns and state violence go hand in hand. They say shut downs disrupt the free flow of information and create a cover of darkness that allows state repression to occur without scrutiny.
Internet shutdowns—with government ordering the suspension or throttling of entire networks, often during election or public protests—must never be allowed to become the new normal.
Justified for public safety purposes, shut downs instead cut off access to vital information, e-financing and emergency services, plunging whole societies into fear and destabilizing the internet’s power to support small businesses, livelihoods and drive economic development.
Ssempala says UCC’s directives instill fear and scare the media from discussing current topical issues.
“Many people get away with criminality because UCC has prevailed over the watchdog (media) which is actually supposed to put people in position of responsibility to account,” he says.