Porn Bogeyman: Uganda’s Creeping Internet Censorship

Porn Bogeyman: Uganda’s Creeping Internet Censorship

Many proposals and figures are scandalous, to say the least. How else do you describe an example of a government policy to spend close to a cool million dollars on porn-detection software in a country that has only one 21-year-old ‘scrap’ for a radiotherapy machine in the name of protecting the ‘dignity’ of Ugandans?

We may disagree on many issues but the fact that no one has the monopoly of the word dignity is a fact – of course, unless we officially kiss freedoms goodbye. For clarity, dignity is not really about respect. Dignity is our inherent value and our worth as human beings. Unlike respect, dignity is not earned; everyone is born with it.

So, when a minister in the person of a defrocked Catholic Fr. Simon Lokodo develops fantasies of detecting porn to block access; to impose what he defines as dignity, I wonder not only whether he appreciates the definition of dignity but also, what the mandate of his ministry is.

A quick search reveals that the Ministry of Ethics and Integrity is mandated with two objectives – fight corruption and ‘empower’ Ugandans to uphold values. Note the word empower.

Of these two objectives, it is obvious what ought to be his – or rather, his ministry’s – priority.

The Ugandan taxpayer is struggling under the burden of widespread and endemic corruption. 2012 corruption perception index ranks the country at 130th position out of 176 countries in the world; in Sub-Saharan Africa, the country ranked 30th out of 48 countries in the region.

And yet, if you ask me what Lokodo has done to fight corruption, I honestly can point at none. In fact, I cannot remember the last time he ever sat besides the Ombudsman or civil society leaders at an anti-corruption event.

He has instead curved himself and the ministry into an embodiment of the ‘sex panic’ that has gripped this country. He first launched a vitriolic and homophobic onslaught on sexual minorities, and then unleashed a major assault on mini-skirts. He played on the emotions of Members of Parliament with an alarmist appeal to pass the Anti-Pornography Act and now seeks to purchase porn-detection software to be installed on electronic equipment, mobile phones, televisions, and computers – especially in Internet cafes.

Amidst Lokodo’s latest brouhaha, the words of Prof. Joe Oloka-Onyango come to mind. The good professor recently warned that there is a sex or moral panic amongst the elite causing devastating consequences. You need not look further than the vocabulary of our laws, the types of legislations that we pass today, and the public policies that we seek to implement.

And let’s look at the obscene strategy employed here. The porn-detectors will help to block six-year olds from watching raunchy fisting videos and the likes of you and me will, at the very least, be blocked from watching hardcore porn. Sounds good, right? No.

It’s all a scary false alarm designed to get the government what it wants – censoring the internet. They did it on election day – February 18, 2016 – and they now want to make it a way of life to wantonly shut down any sites. We cannot afford to watch that happen.

This is a move to operationalise the Anti-Pornography Act, 2014 – a law being challenged in the Constitutional Court by civil rights defenders. The law vaguely defines pornography, creates overbroad offences capable of inciting harassment and mistreatment of women in public spaces for supposedly indecent dress and hence denying them bodily autonomy, and legalizes anti-porn raids by Anti-Pornography Committee members to any premises.

This Anti-Pornography Committee is akin to Saudi Arabia’s mutaween – a religious police force that enforces respect of Islamic religious behavior. Not only does the force block Valentine’s day celebrations or eating pork, but in 2002, it caused the death of 15 young school girls and over 50 sustained serious injuries after it blocked them from escaping from a school building on fire because the girls were not wearing headscarves – thus, indecently dressed to get out of the building.

“Any attire which exposes intimate parts of the human body, especially areas that are of erotic function, are outlawed. Anything above the knee is outlawed. If a woman wears a miniskirt, we will arrest her… Men are normally not the object of attraction; they are the ones who are provoked. They can go bare-chested on the beach, but would you allow your daughter to go bare-chested?” – Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity Simon Lokodo.

If Lokodo has his way, the porn-detector will filter and block Ugandans from accessing a lot of useful information – most of which, the government will simply not want people to see. For example, an attempt to filter ‘obscene content’ or ‘inappropriate’ content is likely to block many sites that in fact, carry no pornographic content.

The government’s ultimate plan is clearly revealed in Lokodo’s statements ordering telecom companies to install ‘software filters’ to track and block public access to what he calls ‘pornographic material’. Basically, government is granting private firms unprecedented authorization to decide what websites we may or may not access. Definition of chilling state-sponsored censorship.

To play ping-pong during the anticipated criticism on the clampdown on freedoms, the State has ‘outsourced’ the censorship. And the private firms are eating it all up.

The opt-in software that comes with the filters will further force Ugandans to reveal their private internet history. Surveillance programs such as ‘Fungua macho’ will easily track the types of websites you look at and such information can unfairly be used against you for blackmail and extortion.

Filtering and Blocking Porn Content will have Opposite Effect

Attempts to filter and block porn content will have an opposite effect. It is very likely to expose children and adults to far greater problems by giving porn sites huge publicity, support, and traffic. The VPN experience during 2016 polls after social media was blocked offers a vivid example of one of the things that could happen. In this age, blocking a site does not make it inaccessible; it makes it popular.

The increased traffic will bypass any filters or blocks in a matter of seconds. Search engines provide simple guides on how to get around any block or filter and there is nothing government can do about that. The problem is, when they do, they are likely to end up in the far darker corners of the internet. Can you imagine your child having to learn why he has to use VPN at the age of four?

So, what would be the way forward? Do we let children blast away with the rotten tide of raunchy videos? No. What we can do is handle the problem at an individual level. Use browser tracking software on your computer so that you can precisely tell where your child has been.

Talk to your child. Children need to know what is right and wrong. They need to know what is safe and dangerous. We take care of this daily for offline activities. The same can be done for their engagements online. Blocking sites only raises their curiosity and if they persist, they will find it.

Lokodo once told Stephen Fry in an interview that men raping girls is natural because ‘it is the right kind of’ rape. His apparent argument was that heterosexual rape is morally acceptable. This is not the kind of guy to be preaching to me about dignity or dangers of pornography. I implore our legislators to block the ministry’s proposal of purchasing porn-detecting software and spend that money on useful activities that will benefit Ugandans. Enough of the shenanigans already!

Masake Anthony
Masake Anthony
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Aine

This guy makes a lot of sense. twitter.com/ali_naka…