New computer misuse law threatens freedom of expression, activists say

Freedom of speech. Image by Markus Winkler from Pixabay

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act, 2022, which criminalises some internet activities despite concerns that the law could curtail online freedom of expression.

The legislation introduced by Kampala Central Member of Parliament, Muhammad Nsereko, prescribes punitive measures for sending or sharing false, malicious, and unsolicited information online.

The law also criminalises unauthorized access to data and prohibits sharing of data relating to children without authorisation from their parents or guardians.  Punishment for the convicted person is Shs15 million or a seven-year jail term, if not both.

Opponents of the law argue that it will be abused by enforcers to silence legitimate criticism.  Amnesty International has urged the government of Uganda to immediately reverse the law as it would “severely restrict freedom of expression online and will be weaponised against critics and political opponents.”

“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 the government, and it will be used to silence dissent and prevent people from speaking out,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

Mwananyanda, however, acknowledged that the law has useful provisions regarding protecting the right to privacy, child protection, and responsible coverage of children.

The Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-U) had earlier issued a press statement urging the president to return the Bill to parliament to reconsider the unclear clauses and those that are overlapping with other existing laws.

“As is, the law targets the free sharing of information and media freedoms. These are, however, fundamental hallmarks of any democratic society. We find that some clauses in the law are prone to misuse. However, this can always be cured by the already existing criminal laws,” HRNJ-U Executive Director, Robert Ssempala, said in a statement.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had also called on President Museveni not to sign the Bill into law, as it would “undermine press freedom by criminalizing speech on a broadly defined and vaguely worded range of grounds.”

CPJ’s Sub-saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo argued that the law would only add to the arsenal that authorities use to target critical commentators and punish independent media.

“President Yoweri Museveni should reject the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill, 2022. He should send it back to Parliament with a request that legislators amend the existing law in a manner that promotes, rather than undermines, press freedom,” he said.

An analysis of the law by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) indicated that the amendments would be a blow to the enjoyment of online civil liberties.

In its presentation to the parliamentary committee on Information and Communications Technology (ICT), CIPESA advised that the law should have instead focused on addressing the existing retrogressive provisions on cyber harassment and offensive communication, which have been abused severally through arbitrary arrests of journalists, activists, and government opponents.

CIPESA added that the amendment does not address issues like trolling and harassment, brought forth by emerging technologies, as the law sought to do in the first place. However, the committee disregarded most of the feedback received from stakeholders.

Edrine Wanyama, the Legal Officer at CIPESA argues that the law is a threat to digital rights and digital civic space and falls short of international standards. “As such, it is imperative for the law to be challenged in court.”

Despite all its regressive nature, Wanyama notes that there are some positives in the law, which, if rightly employed, could potentially improve certain aspects regarding the digital civic space.

Progressive elements in the law

  • The addition of the element of intent in clause 3 in the definition of the offense of unauthorised access is quite progressive. It potentially helps to exonerate innocent individuals from wanton prosecution of what would constitute criminal access over innocent and unintended access. The Bill did not have the element of intent which is core to the determination of criminal liability, to qualify the offense.
  • Clause 3 was initially overly broad to the extent of discouraging the public from sharing information in the child’s best interests, such as their protection from danger and harmful practices. The amendment in clause 3, as far as it provides for circumstances under which information about children may be shared, will ensure that while the child’s privacy is paramount, their best interest should not be disregarded.
  • Clause 4 of the Bill defines hate speech which was not previously provided for. It goes milestones in addressing hate speech which has for decades posed challenges to public order, security, and persons. Furthermore, section 41 of the Penal Code Act on sectarianism presented uncertainties, having limited the definition of sectarianism to groups of religion, tribe, ethnic or regional origin.
  • The law recognizes other laws on disciplinary action against errant leaders. Thus, the deletion of clause 7 is commended. It is a progressive move against a potentially excessive and discriminatory provision as was initially presented in the Bill.

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Image by Markus Winkler from Pixabay

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