Freedom of Expression threatened by Oppression - Uganda's Computer Misuse Act

Gilbert Beyamba Jan. 13, 2023

Protecting the citizenry or silencing dissent? The Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act, now law in Uganda, is a potential threat to online freedom of expression.

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Anyone who shares unwanted information through a computer risks imprisonment for up to 5 years or a fine of 16 million. Now, how unwanted it must get is relative and up for debate. As one of the biggest digital and tech trends in Uganda in 2022, the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill, which was passed by the Parliament of Uganda on September 8, 2022, was also signed by President Yoweri Museveni, along with other bills.

The bill has been the subject of debate since July 19, 2022, when Kampala Central Member of Parliament Muhammad Nsereko introduced it on the floor of parliament. From its inception, the bill was met with almost extreme reactions from both its critics and proponents. It has also been a huge topic of opinion in both mainstream media and across online platforms. So, talk about technology. The Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act has been a trending topic for many Ugandans.

The law has been widely criticized for criminalizing certain internet freedoms, owing to its ambiguous categorization. Human rights activists saw this as a direct assault on the fundamental right to free expression. This is a concerning precedent for other African governments to follow, and it highlights the ongoing challenges faced by digital activists and advocates for online freedom of expression. Anyone who publishes false news or what appears to be false news, or engages in any other activity listed in the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act, 2022, can be charged and fined under this act. The penalty can range from a fine to up to ten years in prison. This law not only limits free expression, but it also jeopardizes internet users' right to privacy. The criminalization of certain internet activities under this act is especially troubling, as it could lead to the silencing of dissenting voices. It also sets a bad precedent for other African countries to follow suit and further restrict free expression, particularly on the internet.

This is because the provisions in this new law are so broad that they could potentially be used to target anyone who uses the internet in a way that the authorities don't like. For example, a journalist who exposes corruption or wrongdoing through online reporting could be charged with "impairing the operation" of a computer system if the information they publish causes a government website to crash.The law further makes it a crime to publish "false or misleading" information online without defining what constitutes false or misleading information. This could be used to target anyone who criticizes the government or exposes corruption, even if their reporting is accurate and well-sourced.

In addition, the law gives the authorities broad powers to censor and block content on the internet. This could be used to shut down websites or social media accounts that are critical of the government or to prevent people from accessing information that the authorities don't want them to see.This is further worsened by the heavy penalties it imposes for violations. Under the law, anyone convicted of a computer misuse offense could face up to 10 years in prison, as well as significant fines not exceeding UGX 15 million. (USD 3,900). This is a severe punishment for what are often relatively minor offenses, and it raises serious concerns about the potential for abuse and overreach by the authorities.

It is important to note that freedom of expression is essential for democracy and human rights. If the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act, 2022, is not amended, it could lead to a situation where citizens are unable to speak their minds freely in the long term. This would be detrimental to the progress of Uganda's democratic process and pose serious threats to basic human rights.

The Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act passed in Uganda in 2022 has been widely criticized for its potential to undermine freedom of expression and other fundamental rights. The law's vague and overly broad language, combined with heavy penalties and censorship provisions, makes it a serious threat to internet users. However, on January 10, 2023, the Constitutional Court of Uganda nullified Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act of 2011, which dealt with offensive communication. This ruling comes after a 2016 petition argued that the section was vague, violated civil liberties, and contravened constitutional guarantees. This ruling is seen as a positive step, as the law has been used to silence critics, political opponents, and dissidents for over a decade. The government has 14 days to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Moreover, the law sets a dangerous precedent for other governments across Africa, who may be tempted to use it as a model for cracking down on online expression and dissent. Anyone who cares about freedom of speech and the free flow of information should be worried about this. We must speak out against this law and demand that it be changed or thrown out in Uganda.