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Misusing computer misuse law

Dr. Stella Nyanzi appears before court on charges of offensive communication and cyber harassment

Kabuleta saga evokes different views from Uganda’s online community, experts

kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | What exactly do Police mean by disturbance of peace and quiet of the president? And what exactly entails legitimate communication? These questions once again came to the fore following the most recent arrest of former Sports journalist-turned pastor, Joseph Kabuleta, on the evening of July 12 in Kampala.

Kabuleta who regularly writes on his Facebook page under the title “Joseph Kabuleta Weekly Rant Returns,’ had on July 8 posted another “rant” titled “Mafia Empire and the Transition” where he detailed plans to have President Museveni’s son and senior presidential advisor on special operations, Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, take over leadership of Uganda.

Kabuleta said Muhoozi is already being sent on foreign missions on behalf of his father and is meeting ambassadors and dignitaries, and tweeting about it.”

“May be the God father is planning to go into semi-retirement after rigging the 2021 elections and take on an advisory role as his son runs the family business called Uganda Ltd.”

“Oh may be, just maybe, the transition happens within NRM and the country adopts a Parliamentary system in which the party with the most elected legislators take the presidency.”

Kabuleta then concluded:  “Whatever their plans, I know for sure that the reality will be different. The Mafia Empire is crumbling and Uganda will return to Ugandans.”

Kabuleta was arrested and taken to the Special Investigations Unit in Kireka on the eastern outskirts of Kampala where he was held for four days before being charged with the offence of offensive communication contrary to section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act of 2011.

It states that any person who willfully and repeatedly uses electronic communication to disturb or attempt 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 24 currency points or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both.

The Computer Misuse Act, 2011, prescribes liability for offences related to computers. Such offences could, for instance, relate to child pornography, cyber harassment, offensive communications, and cyber stalking.

Supporters of the Computer Misuse Act, 2011, one of three cyber laws that were enacted by Parliament in 2011 to protect Uganda’s online community say the law is actually good and is based on international best practices such as the Budapest Convention on Cyber crime.

Government officials say the offence of “offensive communication” was introduced in the Computer Misuse Act to restrict or veto “hecklers” in online environments who have no legitimate purpose for their communication.

“If such offences are removed from the Act, such behaviour will go on untamed considering the increase of electronic communication in Uganda,” noted one official from the National Information Technology Authority-Uganda (NITA-U), an autonomous government agency that coordinates and regulates information technology in the country.

The NITA-U officer said it is because of such a law that under a recent global index which measures the preparedness of countries to prevent cyber threats and manage cyber incidents, Uganda received “global recognition.”

But legal and human rights experts find this provision in the law controversial. Anne Tendo, a legal consultant at Cromwel Co. Ltd told The Independent on July 22 that even though she understands that freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right, Article 25 of the Computer Misuse Act, 2011 infringes upon Ugandans’ rights.

Tendo told The Independent that Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act contravenes some international standards such as fair comment. She said President Museveni’s insistence during the July 18 national address that the police should ignore the charge of annoying the president and instead charge people for telling lies cannot hold in Uganda because the country does not have any law on sedition.

Tendo said Uganda’s courts need to move quickly and interpret what “disturbance of peace and quiet” actually means. She also wants the courts to define what amounts to “legitimate communication.”

She added: “Kabuleta was charged as the original publisher of this content but how about those who have been sharing his posts?”

Tendo said under the Computer Misuse Act, people who re-broadcast or share Kabuleta’s weekly rants are liable to being charged with the same offence. She finds this quite logistically problematic.

Tendo told The Independent that in her research on similar laws in Kenya, South Africa and India, countries which share the same jurisprudence, this law left out this provision.

“I don’t want to believe that this was an omission on their part but probably they interpreted it as a provision that could inhibit freedom of speech and expression.”

For Juliet Nanfuka, the research and communications officer at the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), it is the selective application of this law that she is concerned about.

“We see that when it is about criticism of the state or the powers that be, the laws are used but not so much when it is about other individuals,” she said, “It is like the state is telling citizens not to be critical, otherwise, they will get arrested,” Nanfuka told The Independent on July 22.

She added: “We don’t see as much effort by the state when we see women being attacked online.”

Nanfuka says a culture which promotes self censorship is detrimental to democratic growth. She says criticism is good for government, especially if it is on issues that citizens know could be done better.

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