Regulation of online communication is vital to curb the spread of misinformation and disinformation, but such regulation must ensure strong guarantees for freedom of expression. This was one key conclusion of a public debate in Kampala on 1st October, organised by the EU Delegation to Uganda and the Embassy of Sweden in Uganda. The debate was telecast live on national television, NTV Uganda and streamed online, recording more 1.5 million impressions on Twitter. The topic attracted special public attention due to its timeliness, as Uganda heads to a general election in January-February 2021 and the use of social media channels will play an increasingly important role.
The event, which was held to mark the International Day of Democracy 2020, opened with remarks from the Ambassador of Sweden to Uganda, H.E. Per Lindgärde, who stressed the need to ensure transparency and access to reliable information particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The debate also featured contributions from Lillian Nalwoga, President of the Internet Society in Uganda and Ebise Emiru Angosse, President of the Makerere University Debating Union, and moderation from Bernard Tabaire, Programme Director at the African Centre for Media Excellence.
Nalwoga highlighted how social media has become a breeding ground for the spread of misinformation and disinformation, while Emiru challenged users to ask whether they are playing their part by verifying the information they receive. Reflecting on these questions in the context of Uganda’s upcoming elections, moderator Tabaire questioned whether accurate information or disinformation would take the upper hand during media and online campaigns that candidates will mainly be limited to because of COVID-19 restrictions.
In an energetic exchange, participates debated the role of regulators in countering the threat of misinformation and disinformation. Abdu-Sallam Waiswa, the Head of Legal at the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) reminded the public that every individual is responsible to ensure that the messages they share on social media are factual. In response, the Executive Director of human rights organisation Chapter Four Nicholas Opiyo recommended that the UCC should focus more on understanding the “ecosystem of digital platforms” and invest time and energy to investigate organised attempts to spread disinformation, rather than on regulating individual’s online speech.
Speaking at the conclusion of the event, the EU Delegation’s Deputy Head of Delegation Anna Merrifield stressed how these are universal problems, which the EU Member States have also faced in recent years. She emphasised the need for regulation to protect freedom of speech but also be able to block the spread of misinformation and disinformation. The topics raised in the debate, which was live broadcast to a wide audience online and on national television in Uganda, will continue in the coming months through the EU Delegation's ongoing dialogue with the Government of Uganda and with civil society and through the Embassy of Sweden’s activities under the #Drive4Democracy campaign.
A recording of the event live is here: