By David Mafabi
KAMPALA– A total of twenty five internet users were in 2017 arrested and subjected to trial for internet abuse against section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act 2011, according to a new report.
The report says that the arrests were meant to instigate fear and self-censorship among internet users, which reflects government’s growing intolerance of critical on-line commentary.
The report by Unwanted Witness, adds that Uganda’s internet is increasingly getting controlled and criminalized by government resulting into stifling of internet users’ fundamental freedoms and rights.
Unwanted Witness is a civil society organization (CSO) that was established to respond to the gap in effective communication using both online and offline expression platforms.
While addressing the media at Rock gardens in Kampala to mark the World Internet Day, the executive director Unwanted Witness, Dorothy Mukasa, described the arrests and attacks on internet users as an indication of failure by government to uphold promises made to safeguard freedom of expression during the UN Universal Periodic Review.
“2017 registered the highest number of Ugandans ever arrested for their on-line expression and these arrests are clearly targeted crackdowns on free flow of information and speech on internet,” said Ms Mukasa.
The report reveals that between January and December 2017, 13 journalists from different media houses, including Daily Monitor, Red Pepper, The New Vision and The investigator were arrested, 1 journalist from NTV Uganda was kidnapped, 4 artists, 2 political activists, 6 UPDF officers and one academia were also arrested.
“Apart from the UPDF officers who were charged under section 7 of the UPDF Act, 2005 for sharing information on Whattsap, all the other arrested internet users were charged with offensive communication and cyber harassment contrary to sections 25 of the Computer misuse Act, 2011,” reads the report in part dated January 18.
The report adds that the right to privacy and internet freedom are facing enormous threats as Ugandan government imports surveillance equipment and sets up internet monitoring units among the various security agencies.
Mr Fred Otunu, the UCC spokesperson said although Ugandans are encouraged to engage the internet as much as possible in the 21st century, they should bear in mind that they have responsibilities and obligations not to misuse it.
He said anybody who has been arrested, in one way or the other has abused usage of the internet and not used it positively.
“In this 21st century, society should engage the media more because everything is based on the internet be it Education, science, entertainment, information etc. but we must be able to use it responsibly,” said Mr Otunu.
He said UCC does not seek to stifle freedoms but wants responsible use like in countries like France where they have banned pornographic sites, People should use social media but responsibly,” he added.
He said the World Internet day should be able to offer an opportunity to highlight positive uses of technology and to explore the role we all play in helping to create a better and safer online community but added that the day calls upon young people, parents, teachers, social workers, law enforcement, companies, policymakers to join together in helping to create a better internet.
The Police spokesperson Mr Emilian Kayima consented Police have arrested some Ugandans and that some are facing prosecution, for their social media posts deemed offensive or abusive under the Computer Misuse Act, 2011.
“And online communications users who post comments considered to be slanderous could face prosecution and prison if the posts are deemed illegal by authorities. Police is just enforcing the law and that is our work,” said Mr Kayima.
This comes at a time UCC has already created a Centralised Equipment Identity Register system to automatically monitor and oversee mobile phones in both public and private sectors.
The report notes that in the bid to regulate activities in the cyber space the government enacted more than five (5) legislations in a period of less than four years including; the Computer Misuse Act, Electronic Signatures Act, Uganda Communications Act, Regulation to Interception of Communications’ Act, and Electronic Transactions Act among others.
The Unwanted Witness who have already petitioned the constitutional court wants court to declare Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act 2 of 2011 as inconsistent with Article 29(1) “(a) of the Constitution and is to that extent null and void.”
The report urges government to ensure that it fulfils its obligations to meet international freedom of expression standards, as well as to protect journalists from torture, attacks and intimidation and investigate any attack, in line with its obligations under the UN Convention against Torture.