Social media crime crackdown. There’s more to this story.

Ref. Daily Monitor, June 22, 2015

In 2013, the Uganda Communications Commission set up a Computer Emergency Response Team, whose mandate was to secure communication services in the country.

As the New Vision reported at the time, the unit that would work with the National Computer Response Team under the ICT Ministry, was tasked with scanning the internet to “monitor and report high-tech crimes including cyber-based terrorism, computer intrusions, online sexual exploitation, and major cyber frauds”.

In 2014, the police announced that it would set up a cybercrime unit, sparking off protests from defenders of internet freedom.

In an article published in the Daily Monitor, the police chief Kale Kayihura said they were “working with foreign cybercrime experts to train Ugandan police officers and set up equipment that will monitor suspected cybercriminals”.

Fast forward to 2015. The police have actualized their promise of setting up the unit.   Daily Monitor reports that Gen. Kayihura appointed Richard Ndaboine as head of the Cybercrime Unit and he will work in collaboration with the forensic referral centre of excellence.

The police cites the many cases of cybercrimes reported to it and the millions of shillings people  have lost to online crimes as the reason for the unit. They argue, according to the Daily Monitor, that it “could destabilise the country”, thus the need “to act fast”.

This development comes on the heels of exchanges on social networking site Whatsapp, where two ethnic groups in western Uganda hurled abuses at each other following a dispute at a forum far from the country’s borders. This apparently irked the President so much that he issued a warning against misuse of social media to incite hatred and tribalism.

Prior to this incident, the police arrested and charged Robert Shaka, a popular social media commentator, with using electronic devises to spread offensive communication against the President, his wife, the police chief and others in contravention of the law.

Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act states that: “Any person who willfully and repeatedly uses electronic communication to disturb or attempts to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication whether or not a conversation ensues commits a misdemeanor and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty four currency points or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both”.

All these development would have appeared routine if some questions were not left unanswered. For instance;

  • What are the powers of the cybercrimes unit? How exactly will it operate? To whom is it accountable?
  • Where does the establishment of a cybercrime unit, leave the UCC-established cyber unit?
  • Will the two government bodies collaborate, if so, what are the mandates of each?
  • Where does the law say about all this?
  • What about the issue of privacy of internet users?

Although the Computer Misuse Act points to the right to privacy as one of the key reasons to punish ‘offensive communication’, it is not clear whether that right to privacy will be guaranteed if the police go about their cybercrime operation without their mandate being clearly and publicly declared.

As the police crack down on cyber criminals, the collateral damage should not be freedom of expression and the right to internet use. Therefore, how will this balance be struck? This and the preceding questions are the reasons more needs to be explored about this story.

Harriet Anena

Harriet Anena is ACME’s Special Projects Officer hanena@acme-ug.org @ahpetite

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