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Media “switch-off” in Kenya: a looming threat to pluralist society



Guest post by Grace Mutung’u (@bomu)

On Tuesday, January 30, the Communications Authority of Kenya switched off three main television stations and a local language channel ahead of a mock swearing-in ceremony for opposition leader Raila Odinga. A day later, the “switch-off” was extended indefinitely as the government proceeded with investigations into the role of the media in broadcasting the swearing-in ceremony, which the government considers an illegal act. Okiya Omtata, a human rights activist, obtained court orders requiring that TV broadcasting be restored, with no more interference until the case is heard and a legal determination is reached. One week later, the government restored two of the four stations.

Regardless of the government’s rationale for cutting off TV broadcasting, it’s a disproportionate measure that interferes with the right to free expression, which includes the right to access information. This right is protected under the law.

One would think that this type of broad shutdown would be met with furious condemnation. But the rebukes have come mostly from media freedom veterans and organizations. In perhaps an indication of changes in foreign policy, the international community has taken a “balanced” diplomatic approach. The public wants vindication, as they have time and again raised concern over the media’s cosy relationship with the state. Should a media company’s purportedly dirty hands prevent us from defending its freedom? If we stay silent, could this TV switch-off lead to a full internet shutdown — despite the government’s pledge to keep the internet on?

For many years, Kenyans congregated in homes, entertainment venues, and other public spaces to watch the 7 o’clock news. In past eras, news content was largely from the executive point of view. In spite of the controls, people appreciated the news for its value in broadcasting information, regardless of the opinion it was clothed in. Fast forward to the present situation with Raila Odinga, leader of opposition, reading an oath before a crowd at Nairobi’s main public space, Uhuru Park.

Public curiosity about the Uhuru Park rally was high. Parts of the event were shared online and despite the fact that attention has shifted to the TV shutdown, analysis of the rally is ongoing. The government contends that by airing “an act of subversion,” the media is an accessory.

Public opinion is divided on the merit of Raila Odinga’s oath, with U.S. foreign policy reflecting support for the Kenyan government’s view that it is destabilizing for the nation. The three media houses that were shut down have taken cover under the constitutional guarantee of press independence.

Kenya’s Constitution protects speech online and off. The Constitution is relatively young, having been passed in 2010 with approval from 67% of Kenyan voters. It protects both the right to freedom of expression (art. 33), “which includes freedom to seek, receive or impart information or ideas,” and freedom of the media (art. 34), affirming people’s right to broadcast without interference or penalty based on the viewpoint or content transmitted. Both of these rights are subject to limited exceptions. On the policy side, Kenya is one of 30 governments in the Freedom Online Coalition, a partnership of states “working to advance internet freedom” that has spoken out against network disruptions.

A point of contention in the debate is whether the media has acted in good faith. Take for instance how and why the switch-off story became known in the public sphere: news editors were in a meeting with the government and they disagreed on coverage of the Uhuru Park event.

For its part, the public has warned the press about the dangers of an opaque relationship with the government. Examples range from the widely discussed media high tea at Statehouse in 2013, the creation of the government advertising agency, the running of government promotions during the 2017 election period, and the drafting of “conflict-sensitive” guidelines for the election period. Not to mention that the media framed the election as a binary between the ruling coalition, Jubilee, and the opposition forces under Raila Odinga, thereby contributing to polarization of the society. This is not to say that all of these policies were wholly wrong, but to point out that they were made with little or no public involvement, as if they were purely business and not public-interest decisions. These are not inclusive, multi-stakeholder processes.

Among urban populations, switching off four television stations does not appear to have had made much of an impact yet. This might be because there are alternative news sources, including the content from the four stations that is available online. But the problem with the switch-off is not just what it reveals about the relationship between the media and the public, but what it says about how our society is organized and how the rules are made.

In the past, Kenya went through a “one party era,” where the executive was in total control of policy, law, and practices, and everyone was expected to toe that line. Now we have a dispensation that envisages a plural society with a separation of powers. The executive should not be the last word on what information should be available in the public sphere and a dispute involving some content should not be resolved in a manner that affects whether the public can make choices in the marketplace of ideas.

For those who depend on “free-to-air” channels (which you can watch without paying for a subscription), the switch-off significantly limited their access to information. In one online discussion about the switch-off, a young Kenyan lamented that those without internet access were calling their friends and relatives in Nairobi to get a picture of the ongoings at Uhuru Park. A journalist from one of the switched-off stations discussed how his programs, which cover government technical and vocational institutions, were cancelled because of this action. Those who work under contract for content producers are also out of work during the switch-off.

Outside the broadcast media, businesses that provide access to information — for example, internet service providers (ISPs) — are undertaking economic, tech, and regulatory risk assessments, simulating scenarios in case they get a government directive. What happens if the switch-off targets online media? Will ISPs push back?

It may be that government had legitimate reasons for the action it took — that’s not clear — but even if it did, switching off four television stations goes too far for fixing the problem it’s trying to address. Restrictions like this on free expression should be targeted and necessary to achieve a legitimate aim. The message the switch-off has sent to the Kenyan people, allies, prospective investors, and the world, is that under this administration, one can never be sure of what will happen, even when a freedom is clearly spelled out in the Constitution.

This switch-off is therefore bad for our society. As Article 19, Amnesty International, and others stated, the blocking is “unacceptable” and curtails press freedom. We add that the switch-off fails to respect the values of openness and inclusivity that are essential to internet policy making, and threatens the new balance of powers in pluralist Kenya.

While we call upon the media to improve its relationship with the public, let us defend our freedom to access information and ideas, consider them, and judge for ourselves whether they are good for us.


Accountable Development To Communities

Signs of harmful projects with financing from development institutions are spotted in Uganda…



By Witness Radio Team.

The growth of a country is discerned by great leaders and innovators who see opportunities out of darkness and transform their areas from nothing to success. Those are great leaders whose interest is to see the developments in their countries and the well-being of their citizens.

Every single day, countries all over the world receive investors that acquire loans, grants, and donations to implement mega projects that are seemingly expected to develop host countries. countries and investors borrowing the money Often, countries and investors portray how these projects improve the livelihood of the browbeaten, au contraire, they have left many broken families, poor-dirty homesteads, and shattered dreams.

Uganda is one of those countries, whose citizens have paid a price for reckless or unsupervised and profit-led international investment. In a bid to implement its industrial policy, the country has welcomed both foreign and local investors with interests in the fields of extraction, industrial agriculture, carbon credit tree plantation, mining, infrastructural projects, and many others.

It has received billions of dollars from different financiers including commercial banks, Pension Funds, and International Development Finance Banks or institutions, among others. For instance, the World Bank has invested more than 20 Billion Dollars since 1963 and currently

Every project comes with its own chilling story. More often their stories are unheard by the World. Witness Radio – Uganda surveyed some projects in Uganda. This study revealed agony, illegal evictions, abject poverty, environmental degradation, and loss of life among others, as some of the consequences suffered by the would-be beneficiaries of these international funded projects across the country.

In the capital of Uganda, Kampala, over 1750 families were forcefully evicted from a city suburb, Naguru, for Naguru- Nakawa housing estates.  11 years down the road the project that was highly hyped is to take off on the grabbed land. Pleas from the victims of the eviction to regain their land have all fallen on deaf ears.

About 80km away from Kampala is the island district of Kalangala surrounded by the World’s second-largest lake, Victoria, and known for palm growing. When the palm-oil project was introduced to residents they were given the impression that it would improve their livelihoods and create job opportunities.  Instead, it has dumped thousands into poverty after their land was grabbed by BIDCO, a Wilmer international-funded project. People lost land and now work on plantations as casual laborers. The neighboring communities are accusing BIDCO workers of sexual and gender-based violence.

In the South-Western District of Kiryandongo, multinational companies including Agilis Partners Limited, Kiryandongo Sugar Limited, and Great Seasons SMC Limited with funding from The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), The Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom, and Common Fund for Commodities among other financiers are forcefully evicting more than 35,000 people. The eviction has been on since 2017.

Workers that worked on a World Bank Project in Soroti, in the far east of the country, are accused of sexually harassing minors. Several young girls were defiled and left pregnant. Despite the government being aware of this none of the pedophiles have been brought to book, the World Bank-funded project in the Eastern Town of Soroti left several underage girls defiled and impregnated.

In late 2020, residents of Kawaala zone II woke up to the hail of armed men and graders evicting and destroying their properties to implement a multimillion-dollar project funded by the World Bank. The project is being implemented by the Kampala Capital city Authority (KCCA) on behalf of the government of Uganda.

The above-listed and other projects, on the other hand, continue to perpetuate violence and judicial harassment against leaders of Project Affected Persons (PAPs) and community land and environmental rights defenders because of their work that resists illegal evictions and destruction of the environment among others.

Although project implementers such as government entities accuse local communities of occupying land targeted for projects illegally, in most cases victim communities have rights over these pieces of land because their settlement on the same land can be traced to have happened generations ago.

No matter how people are negatively impacted being by these harmful projects, financiers continue to release more money to the government and investors. The banks aim at profit margins other than the livelihoods of the people. In Bulebi village, Mbazi parish, Mpunge Sub County in Mukono district, Akon’s futuristic city is about to lead to the eviction of over 1000 residents whose entire lives have been built on their land.

In April last year, American rapper Aliaune Damala Badara well known for his stage name AKON visited Uganda in search of land for constructing the city. On the same business trip, he met President Museveni Yoweri Kaguta and expressed his interest in building a futuristic city with its currency. The president ordered the Ministry of Lands, housing, and urban development to look out for free land for his city.

However, on 7th Jan 2022, the Uganda Land Commission showed the Minister for Lands, Housing, and Urban Development “Hon Judith Nabakooba” land that was proposed for the Akon city. According to the Uganda land commission, the land is Freehold Volume 53 Folio 9 measuring I square mile.

This has sparked outrage amongst the affected as they were never consulted or consented to allow the project in their community. According to community members that Witness Radio interviewed, they said they heard the distressing news of Akon city through the Media.

The community said no official from the ministry has ever approached them about their land giveaway. “Our country is full of land evictions and evictors begin in that way. There has been no official coming on the ground to officially inform us about the project and neither have we heard any official communication of compensation.” Obori said.

Residing in the attractive village surrounded by freshwaters, the community asserts this has been the source of livelihood and advised the government to get alternative land for the City.

Controversies surrounding the land giveaway and ownership of the area still exist. A section of residents have protested and vowed not to surrender their land for the City. They claim to have acquired freehold titles from the Mukono lands board.

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Accountable Development To Communities

Breaking: over 350,000 acres of land were grabbed during Witness Radio – Uganda’s seven months ban.



By Witness Radio Team.

As the onslaught on civil society heightens, its space continues to shrink which has bearing on the services they render to the communities. Witness Radio, was among the 54 organizations suspended by Uganda’s National Bureau for Nongovernmental Organizations on August 20th, 2021. The actions are amongst the recent forms of attack on civil societies in Uganda. Other numerous attacks include arrests of rights activists, harassment, tortures, and office- break-ins at night by security operatives who move away with valuables.

The effects of this suspension were felt by communities facing land grabs across the country. For seven months while the organization was suspended, over 300,000 people were evicted from their land and couldn’t access specialized and prompt legal assistance.

Witness Radio Uganda, globally known for its campaign against community land-grabs couldn’t assist these victims of land grab since it risked facing further sanctions from the Bureau in case it intervened. However, last week, there was some relief, when Uganda’s National Bureau for NGOs lifted suspension and certified its operation.

According to Mrs. Bulyerali Joan, the Head Legal at Witness Radio – Uganda, the organization conducted a review of the evictions that happened during the suspension. With information and assistance from some lawyers, local journalists, and community land and environmental rights defenders across the country, the evictions watchdog was able to document cases of hundreds of thousands of Ugandans that were either forcefully evicted or received threats of evictions while in its limbo.

The ban imposed on Witness Radio coupled with the disruptive impacts of COVID- 19 resulted in the surge of eviction cases, especially in areas where the organization had a presence. Throughout the ban, without access to swift and prompt legal support, the communities resorted to sharing with the world their ordeal.

She further noted that the evictions were conducted in disregard of the law on evictions. “I was shocked to see powerful people and companies take advantage of our suspension to escalate the evictions of vulnerable communities that received our assistance. The evictions did not comply with the land eviction practice directives. None of them was preceded by legal court orders.”  She noted.

According to the Land Eviction directives, issued by the former Chief Justice of Uganda, Bart Katureebe, evictions shall be preceded by valid court order, properly identifying the persons taking part in the eviction, and upon presentation of formal authorizations. The police and local authority of the area shall be notified and shall be present to witness the evictions, among others.

Based on the data gathered by the team, various communities across the country were left dispossessed by land grabbers without any form of assistance. Others have received threatening messages with intentions of dispossessing them off their land.

During the period under review, over 300,000 people across the country are believed to have been threatened with evictions, while 350,000 acres of land were either grabbed or on verge of being grabbed.

“However much, we gathered this information, we expect the cases to be higher because some evictions go unreported either due to the remoteness of the areas or other related factors.” One of the collaborators observed.

The evictions were extremely violent.  They were characterized by kidnaps, arrests and detentions, torture that often-caused unexpected grief to the communities.

Among the most affected districts include Kyankwanzi, Mubende, Kassanda, Hoima, Buikwe, Wakiso, Kikuube, and Bulambuli districts.

In some of the mentioned districts, the Lands, Housing, and Urban Development Minister toured and halted the evictions but the evictors continued unabated.

Mr. Kimazi Experito, a journalist based in Mubende, attributed the rise of evictions to the organization’s suspension which denied the evictions-affected communities access to specialized legal assistance.

He said Witness Radio has offered support to over 20 land-grab-affected communities in Mubende with legal support. “Witness radio is a game-changer that brought back lives of evicted communities to normal,” he lauded.

“Mubende is one of the fastest-growing areas because of gold and other minerals as well as factors related to fertile soils. Currently, it is one of the hotspots of evictions. Opportunists used this chance to grab land from people with full attention. Without the defenders, it’s often hard for people to get justice since local people are not much informed about land laws.” Kimazi explained.

Engineered by powerful people in public offices, multinational companies, and politicians using state machinery including the army and national police, forced evictions to continue to affect food sovereignty and threaten the role of indigenous communities to protect the environment.

During the same period, President Yoweri Museveni stopped any eviction without the approval of the Resident District Commissioners. However, legal experts warned that the move is to usurp the powers of the Judiciary. In a statement signed by Pheona Nabasa Wall, the Uganda Law Society President noted that the directive undermined the role and independence of courts in handling eviction matters.

That notwithstanding, “Occasionally, the residents are not given any opportunity to negotiate with the landlords. Even when the government obliges to pay landowners, neither does the government nor the evictor compensate for the damaged property. During evictions, properties that were made for their life end up being destroyed in seconds which causes lifetime misery.” Paul Kasoozi, a community land rights defender stated.

With different tactics aimed at alienating the poor from their land, it has been established that the police and the army continued to play a huge role in the largest forms of violent evictions through torture, arbitrary arrests, and detention and instilling fear and pressurizing the local communities to vacate their land on orders of the evictors.

Many of those community members who oppose land evictions end up being kidnapped, tortured, or arrested and detained to silence the community. It takes support from an organization defending communities’ land rights to intervene for such communities to get justice.

Days before the lifting of the suspension imposed on Witness Radio, communities neighboring the Katta Barracks in Bulambuli district, were violently evicted by the Uganda People’s Defense Forces under the alleged command of Lieutenant Colonel Mukiibi Julius without offering alternative resettlement.

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Google Internet project closes in Uganda.



Uganda will be among the 10 African countries that will lose out as Google winds up its Internet Balloon Project. 

The closure follows an announcement in which Google said the project was “an unsustainable business model”.

In 2019, Loon LLC, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, signed a Letter of Agreement in Kampala with officials from Uganda Civil Aviation Authority, in which high altitude solar powered Internet balloons with floating masts over Uganda’s airspace, would be established at an altitude of 500,000 feet.

The balloons would create an aerial wireless network to provide Internet and telecom network connectivity to rural and remote areas.

Dr Anna Prouse, the Loon LLC head of government relations, had said then that Google would partner with telecoms to tap into their technology to allow connectivity.

However, Alastair Westgarth, the team lead of the project, last week announced in a statement the project would be closed.

“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity – the last billion users: The communities in areas are too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people,” he said.

While Loon had found a number of willing partners along the way, he said, they had not found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business.

“Developing radical new technology is inherently risky. I am sad to share that Loon will be winding down,” he said.

Loon had had similar arrangements in Botswana, Nigeria, South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles, DR Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Mozambique and Kenya, but are expected to close as well.

The Loon project was expected to be a game changer in Uganda’s telecomm sector through enhancing connectivity in remote areas, and contributing to the development of the national backbone infrastructure project.

The demand for Internet among Ugandans has grown exponentially in the recent past with Covid-19 being a serious catalyst.

Internet status  

A UCC report published recently indicated telecom and Internet service providers registered an increase in demand for data in the third quarter of 2020 with more than 20 million subscriptions – nearly 50 per cent of the population being connected.

The growth was mainly attributed to the shifting work culture driven by Covid-19, which led many businesses to adopt remote working methods.

Original Source: Daily Monitor

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