By Hamza Kyeyune
KAMPALA, Uganda (AA) - Activists in Uganda asked the Constitutional Court on Monday to reverse a new law on the internet, arguing that it poses a grave threat to human rights, muzzles online dissent, curtails freedom of speech and expression, and is incompatible with international law and standards.
In their petition, they warn that vague and overly broad provisions of the Computer Misuse Act criminalize many forms of freedom of expression and impose hefty fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent, all inconsistent with the Constitution of Uganda and which could be used to intimidate journalists.
“We are not saying that freedom of expression is absolute. No, there already exist proper safeguards for anyone to seek redress if they feel their rights are violated and their opinions censored unfairly. However, what is happening now is an attempt to limit freedom of expression by the state. Yet any attempt to do this should be demonstrably justifiable, which in our view is not the case,” said Norman Tumuhimbise, the executive director of Alternative Digitalk, an online media platform.
He said Alternative Digitalk and 12 others are striving for a judicial review process to examine and reverse the draconian law, which appears immense and arbitrary.
The petition comes as enraged Ugandans continue to express dismay over the new internet law, which lists a raft of punitive measures against people who send unsolicited information.
Bernard Oundo, president of the Uganda Law Society, said the law was poorly drafted and challenged its constitutionality.
“Poor drafting even before I go into the broad legal issues that the act raises. Anyone who exchanges information commits an offense. Now, today if I send you an email, have I violated the Computer Misuse Act? It is a shame that we should have such a law in our legislative books,” he said.
- Adding to the arsenal
A person who uses social media to publish, distribute or share information prohibited under the laws of Uganda commits an offence,” states the new law. The law also forbids the recording or videoing of anyone without their permission or unauthorized access to their personal information, which human rights activists and journalists have said would interfere with the collection of evidence for the prosecution in a bribery case or for any crime committed.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the law would undermine press freedom by criminalizing speech sent via computer on a broadly defined and vaguely worded range of grounds.
“The law will only add to the arsenal that authorities use to target critical commentators and punish independent media,” said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative.
Amnesty International has called for the scrapping of a “draconian law” aimed at suppressing freedom of expression online.
"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,” Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty’s director for East and Southern Africa, said in a statement.
The law has been repeatedly evoked to arrest, detain and interrogate journalists, bloggers and activists. Activists say that President Yoweri Museveni -- one of the longest-serving rulers in the African continent, who has been in power for close to 40 years -- is scared of social media because it was used in Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan to cause regime change.
“The problem is that the law is detached from reality and society. It seeks to criminalize criticism instead of understanding why young people are so angry and unhappy. Rather than silence them, try to listen to what they are saying. You cannot arrest all of them. This draconian new law is more repressive, incompatible with international law and standards and should be declared null and void henceforth.”
The Minister of State for Information, Communication and Technology, Joyce Nabbosa Ssebugwawo, has praised the law as good for the country because it ensures data privacy and protection.