Uganda to intercept text messages

If you plan to send a mobile phone text message during the election period, you are best advised to choose your words carefully or the message could be blocked from reaching your intended recipient.

Friday February 18 2011

Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye and his wife, Winnie, greets the crowd at a rally in Kampala, Uganda on February 16, 2011, the last day of campaigning for presidential elections. Veteran President Yoweri Museveni predicted a landslide victory in polls this week, dismissing Besigye's assertions that Uganda was ripe for an Egypt-style uprising. AFP PHOTO/ROBERTO SCHMIDT

Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye and his wife, Winnie, greets the crowd at a rally in Kampala, Uganda on February 16, 2011, the last day of campaigning for presidential elections. Veteran President Yoweri Museveni predicted a landslide victory in polls this week, dismissing Besigye's assertions that Uganda was ripe for an Egypt-style uprising. AFP PHOTO/ROBERTO SCHMIDT 

By BENON HERBERT OLUKA

KAMPALA

If you plan to send a mobile phone text message during the election period, you are best advised to choose your words carefully or the message could be blocked from reaching your intended recipient.

The Uganda Communications Commission Friday released 18 words and names that it has instructed mobile phone short message service (SMS) to flag if they are contained in any text message. They are then supposed to read the rest of the content of the message and if it is deemed to be “controversial or advanced to incite the public”, will be blocked.

The words are 'Tunisia', 'Egypt', 'Ben Ali', 'Mubarak', 'dictator', 'teargas', 'kafu' (it is dead), 'yakabbadda' (he/she cried long time ago), 'emuudu/emundu' (gun), 'gasiya' (rubbish), 'army/ police/UPDF', 'people power', and 'gun/bullet'.

“Messages containing such words when encountered, by the network of facility owner or operator, should be scrutinised and if deemed to be controversial or advanced to incite the public should be stopped or blocked. A report of all blocked messages should then be prepared and submitted to UCC in 48 hours,” says a confidential email sent by the office of the UCC Executive Director, Eng. Godfrey Mutabazi.

“A report of all blocked messages should then be prepared and submitted to UCC in 48 hours,” adds the message.

UCC officials Friday confirmed that a meeting held on February 15 had agreed on the words to be black-listed. UCC Media and Public Relations Specialist, Isaac Kalembe, said: “It is official communication from UCC, having been disseminated to service providers yesterday.”

The Manager for Communications and Consumer Affairs, Fred Otunnu, said the decision to censure text messages was part of its effort “to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections".

“The main thrust behind the meeting held on February 15 with the service providers was mainly to bring to their notice the possibility of manipulation of ICT during this election period with the potential danger of inciting violence and hatred among others. The Commission told them that such periods filled with high tension and excitement are quite vulnerable to manipulation by some people who would want to use the same media to incite violence among others,” he said.

“We brought it to their attention that some words are likely words that may be used in trying to cause that kind of excitement. We said they should look out and if in their considered opinion a message has the potential to cause that kind of excitement, then they should minimise its broadcast by way of blocking it.

"The main purpose for us as a regulator and the service providers alike is together to ensure that the services are used responsibly to foster free, fair and peaceful elections,” added Mr Otunnu.

Asked whether this was not a form of censorship, Mr Otunnu said: “I don’t think it is censorship because censorship is much more than that. We have not actually closed down some media but even in the most democratic countries, governments have the responsibility to ensure responsible usage of such facilities.”

Social media has been used in many countries to mobilise people to demonstrate against incumbent governments. The decision by the UCC to bar the usage of certain words seems like an attempt to circumvent threats by some opposition parties and their supporters that they will demonstrate if elections are rigged by the ruling party.

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