How the ICC Field Office in Uganda is Using SMS to Update Communities about the Ongwen Trial

In northern Uganda, many people have expressed interest in following the trial of former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen. However, most people are unable to do so on a regular basis due to lack of convenient channels. For this reason, the International Criminal Court (ICC) field office in Uganda began disseminating information through short message services (SMS) or text messages. This article explores perspectives of select community members in Lukodi village regarding the effectiveness of the initiative.

Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been on trial since December 6, 2016. He is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps of Lukodi, Abok, Pajule, and Odek.

The ICC field office in Uganda is tasked with disseminating information and updating the public about Ongwen’s trial in order to promote community and victim participation. To accomplish this, the field office traditionally relied on conventional approaches, such as community outreach events, public screenings, radio programs, and dissemination meetings. In April 2017, however, the field office launched a free interactive SMS platform designed to create awareness and engage local communities in the Ongwen trial.

As Maria Kamara, ICC Outreach Coordinator for Kenya and Uganda, pointed out, “The centrality of victims and affected communities to our various engagements drives the quest to continuously explore new, innovative, and cost-effective ways through which victims, affected communities and various stakeholders can have access to and participate in the judicial processes. The SMS platform was therefore identified as [a] feasible and cost-effective approach that can complementarily feed into the already existing Outreach initiatives.”

“The SMS system was particularly selected based on four criteria. Firstly, the mobile phones have greatly penetrated most of the rural communities in our case locations and also in the general situation areas. Secondly, the mobile phones provide for instantaneous exchange of communication. Thirdly, the SMS platform provides unparalleled flexibility. Finally, the SMS is quite a cheap option, given the scale of its reach,” added Maria.

Community members’ reactions to the service has been mixed, with many viewing it as a good initiative on the one hand, and others expressing difficulties in using it on the other hand. Asked if they were aware about the SMS platform, the community members’ responses varied. Many community members who were consulted were aware of the service and testified that the field office had conducted trainings on how to use it.

“Yes I have heard about the use of SMS to update the community,” said Julius, a community member in Lukodi.

“I am aware of the use of SMS to get updates on the trial. The ICC told us that we can use the code 6003 to get the updates,” added Wilson, another community member.

Some community members, however, had not heard of the service and expressed little interest mainly on the basis that they did not own mobile phones.

“No, I have not heard about this [SMS platform] yet. I do not even have a phone, so it is hard to know about this,” a community member called Kinyera lamented.

Selsio, another community member in Lukodi said, “I have never known of this before. I do not have a phone, but we have leaders who give us information [about the trial].”

The SMS platform itself is quite easy and relatively simple to use, provided one owns a mobile phone. To access the SMS platform and start receiving messages, all one needs to do is dial the code 6003, register, and thereafter start receiving SMS updates. Furthermore, as Kamara explained, “The platform is operated in English, Acholi, and in Ateso languages, enabling subscribers to receive and send messages in these languages at no cost to them as the services are prepaid by the Court.” The majority of community members who were aware of the service had subscribed and were already receiving the messages.

“The current numbers of subscribers in the three different languages of English, Luo, and Ateso collectively are about 11,300,” revealed Kamara. However, some community members have not bothered to subscribe to the service despite being aware of it. They gave various excuses for not having subscribed.

“My number was taken by the ICC team, but it was to help them with mobilization only. We were told that we would be sent messages about how the case is going, but I have not paid attention on whether the messages come or not,” said Julius.

“No, I do not receive any messages because I have not registered to that code, but I will register soon because I know it is important to follow the trial especially to me as a victim,” said Wilson.

According to Kamara, “The major content of the SMS updates sent on the platform are major highlight captured from the Ongwen’s trial proceedings. These snapshot highlights are sent for each day is a court session. The responses to the questions received from the registered members on the platform are addressed on a daily basis (Monday – Friday).” Community members who were receiving the text messages confirmed that they received updates after every court session.

“The messages usually come after a court session has happened,” said Charles.

Wilson, who is yet to register for the service, said, “I saw a message from one of my colleagues who has already registered. These messages come when the trial is going on, so once in a while he updates me.”

Asked if the service was effective in promoting victim participation and keeping them informed about the trial, community members again had varied responses. Many, particularly those who had successfully subscribed and were receiving messages, expressed satisfaction.

“It is effective because it has helped to keep me informed. It has helped me know which witness is going to testify,” explained Charles.

It is effective because the community screening comes later, while the SMS enables you to follow as the trial is going on,” explained Wilson.

However, some community members expressed dissatisfaction, citing challenges in registering for the service or lacking mobile phones.

“This method is not effective because personally I do not have a phone. So how can I get these messages? I am very sure many of us in the village here do not have phones,” explained Kinyera.

“To me, this SMS is not very effective because majority in the community can’t read and write, which makes it difficult to use,” said Kennedy. 

“To me, this SMS is not very effective because most people don’t know how to subscribe to it. Much as ICC team taught people, they have not put into action to use it. Most victims don’t have phones, making the SMS very ineffective. Live screening of the case is more effective and majority victims are used to it compared to the SMS to receive messages,” said Hellen.

In addition to the above, Kamara also brought to light other technical related challenges. “The platform can only send a very limited amount of text at any given moment, limited to only 160 characters. This means that sometimes we have to send many segments of the same message to be able to provide meaningful context. On certain occasions, the system experience technical glitches that affected the flow of information between the Outreach and the communities. Because the platform is free, sometimes we receive multiple messages on issues that do not relate to the purpose of the platform,” explained Kamara.

Albeit the above challenges, the benefits of the SMS platform are apparent. As Kamara pointed out, “The greatest bulk of feedback we receive are from people thanking the Outreach for the timely updates on the judicial developments in the trial of Ongwen and for responding to their questions and concerns in a timely manner.”

During the launch of the SMS platform in April 2017, Herman Von Hebel, the Registrar of the court said, “The mobile technology and SMS platform enhances and complements the work of the multidisciplinary Registry’s team in the country having the potential to reach a wide population with adequate and timely information. An open dialogue and deep understanding of the judicial developments before the ICC are key to ensure effectiveness of the victims’ rights and of the ICC proceedings.”

The comments by community members who are using the SMS platform demonstrate the relevance of using all available channels to keep the public informed. While some community members have expressed challenges in accessing and using the service as demonstrated above, it is quite clear that the SMS platform has diversified options that community members have for receiving updates about the trial.

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda and South Sudan since 2006. He is also the Co-Founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local Non-Government Organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in northern Uganda.