Ugandans love the Internet and usage rates, while still relatively low, are growing quickly. But this rapid expansion has also led to problems in a society still largely organized along traditional lines.
The Internet and digital media changes the Ugandan society which is still largely organized around traditional lines.
The society cluster is classified in the orange section of the #speakup baromter. To find out more about the #speakup barometer color codes, follow this link.
“People are really dying to get connection to the Internet,” said Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, Executive Director at Witnessradio.org, a not-for-profit organization to promote independent media in Uganda. He describes how eager people in Uganda are to get connected, even if only partially, such as through Facebook’s free but limited Internet access program internet.org. “If they hear about internet.org people are excited and say: 'let them come, let them come, it doesn't matter we can't access the whole Internet, it is better to have some'.”
This goes for students as well as for citizen reporters or farmers. Online, they feel connected to the world, see new ways to communicate with their friends and family, and discover new job opportunities. “The Internet is my carrier, it is part of my life”, said Isaak, a researcher for the NGO World Vision. For Stella, a student at the Mbale-based Islamic University in Uganda, the Internet is a tool for knowledge. “Books are often not available,” she said. “But now I can do my research on the mobile phone.”
The spread of the Internet has connected remote communities to the rest of the country. Information can now flow in and out. Citizen reporters like David work as a link between online and offline communities. With his smartphone he can send information from traditional community meetings to the local radio station. “We create a bridge between the voiceless, the public and the authorities”, he said.
What happens next?
The Internet could be a catalyst for more participation in Uganda, but until this happens there are hurdles to be overcome. “I think we are still in the honeymoon phase,” said Ssebaggala, who thinks people generally see the Internet as a place to socialize and haven’t yet thought about the downsides or risks. “People don't care much about net neutrality or Internet governance and they don’t see digital security as much of an issue.”
Other researchers have found even more obstacles, such as a gaping digital divide characterized by low ICT access in some communities due to poverty, illiteracy, traditional cultural beliefs, and language. “Most of the content on the Internet is in English, so that leaves out a big percentage of the population and contributes to the low penetration rates”, said Sarah Kiden, a researcher at the Internet Society.
Women are especially disadvantaged when it comes to Internet access, often due to an inability to read, according to a report from the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), an NGO. “One of the most pressing barriers affecting women is illiteracy. While 73 percent of the Ugandan population over the age of 15 can read or write at a basic level, literate men far outnumber literate women. 82 percent of men are literate compared with only 64 percent of women.”
Neema Iyer from the Ugandan organization “Pollicy” agrees that literacy is among the main reasons for the ICT gender gap, but another important reason is cost. Buying a mobile phone and a data package is much more than many women – especially in the villages – can afford. Then there are cultural and family associations, especially for married women, whose husbands are often wary of their wives having a phone or accessing the Internet. This leads to a huge risk of abuse both online and offline. In a recent survey of 300 women in Kampala carried out by Pollicy, 30 percent reported that they had been victims of cyberbullying and abuse. Godiva Akullo, a Ugandan lawyer, says many women end upself-censoring on social media in order to avoid online aggression. In fact, an Internet space which is becoming more harsh and abusive is a major challenge for all users in Uganda, not just women. “Five years ago, social media in Uganda was a very civil place. Now it is becoming less safe and more rude and violent,” said Iyer.
How can participation in society be improved?
Like Iyer, many experts see fake news and hate speech as serious problems. “People are posting things about others that are not the slightest bit true but because they have a platform that is unedited, they feel free to say these things,” said Gerald Businge Ateenyi, a journalism lecturer at Makerere University and the managing director of Ultimate Multimedia Consult.
For Stella, the student from Mbale, the way the Internet is being used these days is often harmful to young people and the society as a whole. “People adopt something they don't know about. They copy the lifestyles of celebrities, trying things which are not accepted in our culture,” she said. “It is a distraction for the youth. They should be in class but they forget about it because they are busy on their phones.” Thus, while the Internet can increase participation, it has also harm social cohesion within Ugandan society, which is still largely organized around traditional lines.
Iyer from Pollicy wonders about finding ways to use the Internet more productively and hopes there will be a push in terms of understanding the consequences of being on the Internet in society. Richard Zulu, founder of the Kampala-based innovation hub Outbox, recommends increasing awareness around online tools and boosting digital literacy. “That would be a good starting point,” he said. Wakabi Wairagala, executive director at CIPESA , an ICT policy and advocacy think tank, emphasizes the importance of talking to multiple stakeholders on the issue of digital participation: “We also need to work with minority groups, for example with women in rural communities, on how they access information, how they use technology to demand accountability and civic participation, and how they exercise their right to freedom of expression online.”
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer