Computer Misuse Amendment Act symptomatic of its political context

Emilly Comfort Maractho

It is official, the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill 2022 is now signed into law.  Whereas there has been much discussion about the law, that discussion has tended to be polarised between it being a good thing or bad thing. 

Looking at the history of media legislation, it is fairly typical and does not deviate much from the manner in which the changes in media policy have tended to happen. 

It is sometimes staggering when you look at the list of laws that govern the media and what drives them. For every legislation, it is important to appreciate the actual content, that is the information contained therein. For broadcasting, much of that regulation was driven by the idea that radio has the power to do so much harm. 

It is always interesting to study the information in line with the intent of legislation, its interpretation by those who enforce it, and the impact. Looking at the last three decades, our media laws probably say the most about the character of our changing or most appropriately, deteriorating quality of democracy or civic space. 

I have always clustered the periods of media governance under President Museveni based on specific political and ideological shifts such as the initial years 1986–1995 (pre-1995 Constitution), the no party years 1996–2005 (broad-based political system in which all citizens belonged to the National Resistance Movement), and the multi-party years 2006 to date (shift to multi-party politics post the first multi-party elections in 2006).

In doing so, it has been interesting examining the contradictions embedded in the policy and legislative frameworks, as well as the regulatory and institutional frameworks, both in definitional terms and in practice. Also critical are areas of competencies and neglect in the policy frameworks that can be clearly identified. 

What is further interesting is the motivations, the intention for legislation often defined by its piecemeal approach, pointing to what can be interpreted as legislating out of fear;  legislating retrospectively (seeing what is happening within or elsewhere and responding); legislating without adequate research or based on evidence of threat; legislation that is ‘cut and paste’; and legislation which has no intelligent approach to addressing future challenges based on current trends (both local or global). 

Therein lies our biggest challenge for media policy. It has sometimes rendered multiple interpretations of these laws by enforcers and officers who have used them as they wish, against perceived enemies. 

It is not far-fetched to argue that laws and policies are products of their political contexts and these are likely to produce different kinds of policies. This is particularly true of media law. Over the years, the changing political contexts and the perceived closed media space have been reflected in the content of media law.  

Sadly, media players are often not meaningfully involved in the policymaking process, their views ignored or they are too deeply implicated to be vocal about developments that could impact on them negatively. 

Each of the periods pointed to, except the Museveni years, is rich in telling our democratic story. Between 2002 to 2022 alone, from the non-core media laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2002, the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act (GoU 2010a), and the Public Order Management Act (GoU 2013a), to legislation for new media saw the enactment of the Computer Misuse Act (GoU 2011a), the Electronic Transactions Act (GoU 2011b) and the Electronic Signatures Act (ESA 2011c, the range of legislation is ever-growing. This recent amendment to the Computer Misuse Act is only one of many attempts to stifle media freedom using legislation. 

Looking back on some of the legislation and how these have coincided with certain political developments such as elections and public discontent over governance, there is a long list of previous attempts to legislate for the comfort and protection of those who govern Uganda rather than in the interest of the public or for the good of the industry. The net result, especially for media, has been a fairly problematic growth and development. The consequence, with time, will be that not only does media development suffer, but along with-it democratic processes. 

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.