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Towards a Gender-Friendly Legal Framework Governing Freedom of Expression and Access to Information on Social Media

In Uganda, there are an estimated 3.4 million social media users, by the end of January 2021 (about 7.3% of the population), representing a growth of 900 (+36%) between 2020 and 2021. The penetration of social media is helping citizens to explore new ways of mobilizing themselves for a common cause or for sensitizing the public on several issues because of its openness thus, potentially giving every individual a chance to reach out to the public.

Despite this, there are several inhibitions that restrict citizens from fully enjoying the benefits of social media penetration, including a restrictive legal environment on social media. Despite the fact that Uganda has made commitments to both regional and international human rights instruments safeguarding the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, recent incidents indicate a high level of restrictions and suppression to these freedoms both in the online and offline spaces by the state. It remains difficult for actors to accept that there is freedom of expression and access to information because there are several laws in play that introduce both civil and penal sanctions for those that violate the rights to freedom of expression and access to information. Often information requests are routinely denied, procedures for implementing the law have not been clearly established and none of the ministers have complied with reporting obligations to Parliament under Section 43 of the Access to Information Act.

The government holds a lot of information about its policies, programs, processes, and activities that would be of great value to inform the people on what they deserve to know to instigate transparent and effective public debates on matters that directly concern them but government officials often insist that such information must be kept confidential even to those they are accountable to. Also, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), a regulator in Uganda requires social media accounts with large followings to register and submit to official monitoring.

In 2018, the government implemented a controversial social media tax commonly known as Over the Top (OTT) Tax, requiring users of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to pay a daily fee of $0.05 USD (approximately 200 Uganda Shillings (UGX), which is prohibitively expensive for many.

The majority of women, in particular, are excluded from freely expressing themselves and accessing information on social media because of the retrogressive existing legal and policy frameworks, lack of access and affordability of ICTs, increased incidences of online gender-based violence, lack of knowledge, and skills to safely navigate the online platforms. Similarly, women are still lagging behind men in their ability to take advantage of the power of digital technologies, with only 48% of women being online as compared to 58% of men globally. In Africa, only 22.6% of women are online as compared to 33.8% of men while in Uganda only 44% of women are online as compared to 62% of their male counterparts, further reflecting the gender digital divide which negatively affects women’s freedom of expression and access to information.

This crisis for the case of women is further magnified by a myriad of complex reasons that impede access to information and freedom of expression making online rights remain one of the most expensive privileges for women – in addition to negative cultural and gender norms, to limited understanding of the law, critical gaps within the administration of justice and institutional weaknesses, and poor ICT- infrastructure.

A critical contribution to strengthening Ugandans’ Rights to Freedom of Expression and Access to Information is to curb the failure of legal and regulatory frameworks, including the government adequately funding interventions necessary to implement the laws governing freedom of expression and access to information, prevent and respond effectively to cases of women’s rights online abuses, coordinate interventions, and provide critical support to enable citizens freely express themselves online and have unlimited access to information.

In this policy brief, we discuss the policy priorities and recommendations for strengthening Ugandans’ Rights to Freedom of Expression and Access to Information particularly on social media for women.

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