Controversial government anti-porn committee receives funding to start work

A Uganda government committee constituted to detect and prohibit pornography has received USHS 2 billion to operationalise its work. The Pornography Control Committee, established by the Anti-Pornography Act, 2014, was inaugurated on Monday 28 August by the State Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Mr Simon Lokodo.

Speaking at the inauguration held at the Uganda Media Centre, Lokodo called pornography “one of the deadliest moral diseases in this country”. He blamed pornography for rising drug abuse, incest, teen pregnancy, child defilement, abortion and homosexuality. He also claimed that the “majority of office going people spend much of their time downloading and watching pornographic material”.

The Pornography Control Committee is a nine-person body chaired by Kampala International University’s Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Dr Annette Kezaabu Kasimbazi. Other notable members of the committee are Second Deputy Mufti of Uganda, Sheik Mohamed Ali Waiswa; Ms Victoria Sentamu, Publishing Manager at Moran Uganda Publishers; and Mr Martin Sempa, a Kampala-based pastor best known for his crusade against homosexuality.

In an interview with news site, EagleOnline, Kasimbazi said the committee has a responsibility “to safeguard the survival and success of our children and the future of Uganda”. She made reference to an unnamed report by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations, which she claimed “showed the connection between pornographic users and a tendency to be violent”, and alluded to a tough approach that her committee would take against the use and distribution of pornography.

Legislation prohibiting the trade and production of pornography has been in Uganda’s law books for years. The Penal Code Act of 1950, for instance, outlawed the production, possession, circulation and trafficking of “obscene publications”. Additionally both the Electronic Media Act and the Press and Journalists Act, laws enacted in the mid-1990s, prohibit the broadcast and publication of pornographic material that offend and corrupt public morals.

In 2011, the Parliament of Uganda enacted the Computer Misuse Act that unequivocally outlaws the production, distribution, procurement and possession of child pornography. This law, together with the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act of 2009, were intended to protect the most vulnerable in society, and to impose stringent fines on perpetrators of their abuse.

The same year the Computer Misuse Act was signed into law, the Anti-Pornography Bill was tabled in Parliament. The legal and parliamentary affairs committee, which debated and received submissions on the Bill, released a report saying a pornography-specific law was important because “there was no single law to comprehensively deal with the problem” or to “provide for the protection against pornography”.

While the parliamentary committee largely upheld the provisions of the Bill, it recommended the removal of two clauses related to the function of the Pornography Control Committee. First was a clause that gave the Pornography Control Committee power to indefinitely close any service provider that promotes, publishes or sells pornography. In the Act, the Pornography Control Committee is now only limited to imposing fines on offending internet service providers.

The MPs also attempted to curb the power of the Pornography Control Committee to monitor compliance to the law. Whereas the Anti-Pornography Bill enabled the committee to install, at any time “equipment on land, premises or in a vehicle” to monitor compliance, the law, as passed, limits the committee’s role to the development, purchase and installation of software for the detection and suppression of pornography.

This, however, was insufficient to satisfy privacy advocates, who were already critical of government’s perceived intrusion into citizens’ affairs.

In May 2014, five civil society organisations and four individuals filed a petition in the Constitutional Court that contended that the Pornography Control Committee was conferred with “overly wide and discretionary powers “. The petition contends that this contravenes the rights to personal liberty, privacy and property guaranteed by the Constitution of Uganda. It also challenges the power of the committee to investigate and seize documents and equipment of alleged offenders, and cause their arrest, without a warrant of inspection.

The petition, which has not yet been disposed of by court, calls for a permanent stay of the Anti-Pornography Act and a permanent injunction restraining the Minister from making regulations or issuing statutory instruments under the law.

The absence of a court ruling hasn’t prevented the rising concern about the law. Shortly after the inauguration of the Pornography Control Committee, Unwanted Witness, a civil society organisation that campaigns for greater internet freedom, released a statement demanding that the investigative powers of the committee should be made subject to a judicial warrant.

There are no signs that government intends to waiver on its commitments as spelled out in the Anti-Pornography Act, and with new funding, the Pornography Control Committee is geared to take on its task.

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