Uganda's Computer Misuse Act faulty, will curtail freedoms, say rights activists

President Museveni has assented to the controversial Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill 2022 which targets critical voices online. PHOTO/ FILE

What you need to know:

  • On Thursday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill, 2022 that could see citizens who violate the privacy of others, or tarnish their reputation online, sent to a five-year jail term.

Rights activists, journalists and politicians have faulted the new law on Computer Misuse, arguing that it could curtail press freedom and freedom of speech and expression.

On Thursday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill, 2022 that could see citizens who violate the privacy of others, or tarnish their reputation online, sent to a five-year jail term.

The Bill, which was tabled by Kampala Central Member of Parliament Muhammad Nsereko and passed by Parliament last month, provides for a jail term for anybody who shares or sends unsolicited offensive information or hate speech.

“A person who uses social media to publish, distribute or share information prohibited under the laws of Uganda, or using a disguised or false identity, commits an offence,” states the new law.

Mr Nsereko defended the new law saying it seeks to protect the privacy of individuals from abuse.

The law also penalises recording of a person’s voice or video without permission, or unauthorised access to their personal information, which human rights activists and journalists have described as dangerous as it would interfere with journalism and collection of evidence for the prosecution in a case of bribery or any crime committed.

Amnesty International (AI) has since called for the scrapping of what they called "draconian law aimed at suppressing freedom of expression online."

"This piece of legislation threatens the right to freedom of expression online, including the right to receive and impart information, on the pretext of outlawing unsolicited, false, malicious, hateful, and unwarranted information. It is designed to deliberately target critics of government and it will be used to silence dissent and prevent people from speaking out" Muleya Mwananyanda, AI's Director for East and Southern Africa said in a statement released Friday.

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-U) questioned the motive, with Executive Director Robert Ssempala saying the law is an attempt to curtail freedoms.

According to Mr Paul Kimumwe, the senior programme officer at Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), a research and policy centre, there are already provisions in other laws dealing with hate speech, defamation and children’s rights.

Dr Livingstone Ssewanyana, from Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, says the new law is bad.

“The law is very restrictive and aimed [at] gagging the public and undermines the ability to demand accountability from government. It is uncalled for; worthy repeal,” he said.

Mr Ssewanyana added that human rights organisations are considering challenging it in the constitutional court

According to Nation Media Group journalist Raymond Mujuni, the law will also affect journalism work, especially investigative journalism.

“For investigative reporters, the law targets secret filming, even if it’s done in public interest. In that regard, it makes a core component of investigative reporting, which is recording public interest information, illegal,” he said.

Opposition politicians have described the law as unconstitutional, arguing that it goes against the freedom of speech and expression. They said the law will stifle the acquisition of information and the penalties are overly harsh.

Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, an MP and spokesperson of the Forum for the Democratic Change party, said he did not support the law because he suspects the motivation was wrong, especially as there are other laws with provisions on what the new law is said to remedy.

“Everyone will be a suspect. Some people have already been arrested and tortured as a result of their social media posts,” he said.

Speaking after news came in that the President had signed the Bill into law, Mr Ssemujju said that President Museveni is always scared of social media because it was used in Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan to cause regime change. He added that this is the reason social media is switched off every time there is a general election.

The legislator said the law is being sugar-coated to look like it is protecting children and the privacy of people, but the main intention is to gag activists who use social media.

Media practitioners have cited Dr Stella Nyanzi, a former lecturer at Makerere University, as one of the victims of torture over a social media post. She was convicted of cyber harassment in 2019 and imprisoned.

Other activists who have met the wrath of the law include exiled writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who was arrested and imprisoned on the offence of offensive communication, in which he was accused of abusing President Museveni and his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba.

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