Court declines SIM deadline challenge
By Omondi Julius Odera, Kampala, Uganda
The Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) has breathed a sigh of relief after the high court refused to block the year long process of SIM card registration.
In his ruling, Justice Eldard Mwangusya said that the application for an injunction by the Human Rights Network for Journalists was not formally filed in court and could not be upheld.
The journalists, through Web Advocates and Associates, argued that the 1 March deadline and the directives or notices complained of violated or threatened to violate the citizen’s right to communication, freedom from deprivation of property, and other related rights of consumers of telecommunication services.
They also wanted the court to declare that the UCC, Attorney General and their agents had not carried out structured and sufficient public consultations and sensitization. They therefore sought a court order restraining the Uganda Communication Commission, the Attorney General and their agents from switching off or directing telecommunication service providers to switch off the users of unregistered SIM cards on 1 March or any other deadline set by the Commission before rectifying the anomalies as per the suit.
UCC, in turn, argued that the registration of SIM cards in Uganda is in line with The Regulation of Interception of Communications Act, 2010. “The registration exercise intends to, among others, help law enforcement agencies to identify the mobile phone SIM card owners, track criminals who use phones for illegal activities, curb other negative incidents, and also help service providers know their customers better” explained UCC Executive Director Godfrey Mutabazi.
The court noted that the main suit will be heard on May 2, 2013, leaving the UCC good to go with their set date for the registration deadline.
Meanwhile, most telecommunication operators have hired extra manpower to cope up with the swelling number of subscribers to intending to beat the last minute rush before the Thursday 28 February 2013 deadline. The telecommunication operators have pitched mobile tents in almost every shopping centre in order not to lose out on their subscribers.
UCC's executive director also noted that the exercise is entirely free and the cost is supposed to be borne by the telecommunications operators. He made the clarification in the wake of allegations that some subscribers are being forced to part with either UGX 2000-4000 in order to be registered.
“I am very disappointed because these guys claim that the service is free but when I came to register, the clerk told me that since my passport photo was not clear I had to give him UGX 3000 for his blackberry phone camera service,” lamented Sebaidu Mohammed, a resident in Jinja town. Sebaidu was even more surprised when three months after the registration date, he received an SMS prompting him to repeat the exercise but from a different outlet.
Even as the exercise nears completion, UCC has declined to give the statistics of its progress making it very difficult to ascertain its success in real figures. UCC argues that it will be in the best position to give the data after the deadline set.
The telecommunication operators have also been cautious on the same issue deciding to only give a mere percentage of their registered subscribers minus a numerical figure of the subscriber base. MTN Uganda says that more than 70% of its subscribers had registered by the end of January; Warid reports about 67%, and Airtel more than 68%. Orange Uganda says over 80% of its 1.1 million subscribers were registered by the end of January.
According to UCC, Uganda has a population of about 33 million people, with a growth rate of over 3%. Of these, about 16 million are mobile phone subscribers.