Internet activists in Uganda Thursday used the third edition of a monthly third edition of Uganda Parliamentary Press Association’s Press Plenary to pin government on using cybercrime legal framework.
While giving a snapshot of the state of internet freedom in Uganda at Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala, Geofrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, the Chief Executive Officer of the Unwanted Witness-Uganda, a non-government organisation that advocates for internet freedoms said that government has invested in much in gagging the freedoms of internet users since 2010.
“As we speak now, there are a number of things taking place [against] us as Ugandans using the internet and we must be more worried about the trend Uganda is taking and this has a chilling effect on enjoyment of freedoms of expression and right to privacy,” said Ssebaggala.
On the event which was graced by other panelists; Per Lindgarde, the Swedish ambassador to Uganda, Frank Tumwebaze, the Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Fred Otunnu, the Communications Director at Uganda Communications Commission, Nicolas Opiyo, the Executive Director ChapterFour Uganda, and Caroline Akello Mugisha, an official from NITA-U, Ssebaggala explained that government has inacted a racket of ‘prohibitive’ especially after the Arab spring uprisings.
“We have seen enactment of different pieces of legislations which appeal to the notion of fighting terrorism like the anti-terrorism act which was amended last year which is being used [against internet users] mainly because it doesn’t have judicial oversight.”
He added, “So, it allows surveillance on individuals and groups and it allows the government to order the telecom companies to reveal internet users’ information at any time.”
“When you look at the general cybercrime legal framework of Uganda as we talk now, we have done analysis on over eight cybercrime-related laws and we have established that they are all very weak to uphold and protect freedom of expression online.”
Naming all the eight laws; the anti-pornography act, the computer misuse act, the interception of communications act, the electronic transactions act, the electronic signatures act, Ssebaggala asserted that their intention is to “find crimes against those using the internet.”
In Ssebaggala’s view, some of the laws regarding the cybercrime were hurriedly handled which made them lack the basic minimum standards such as defining key elements of the act, singling out the computer misusing act as an example, thus calling for a review to some laws to the suitability of the internationally recognized framework.
“So, to us, we feel that the legal framework doesn’t promote the internet freedoms, but these pieces of legislation take away what is enshrined in our constitution…and we believe that we shall have an engagement with Parliament to ensure that all these laws are reviewed because we have established that there were limited consultations during their enactment” Ssebaggala said
Ssebbaggala also wondered why government would seek to have all these powers against internet users, through putting in place all these stringent laws.
Ssebaggala, also didn’t have kind words for government agencies like Uganda Communications Commission which he accused of shutting down social media platforms twice in one year, NITA-U which he says obtains a lot of people’s personal data and then distribute it to security agencies like Police and Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence.
In the same vein, Ssebaggala expressed concerns regarding secret surveillance that is being applied by government lately.
However, Minister Tumwebaze, down played Ssebaggala’s concerns, saying that there is nothing much Ugandans should worry about because government always acts in good faith of protecting and securing them.
He said that instead of concentrating on worries, Ugandans should focus on “innovations.”
“Internet is no longer a luxury, but a utility.” Tumwebaze noted.
He disagreed with Ssebaggala on the way laws were enacted, asserting that “the way we do laws in Uganda in my view is the best because they start with ministries going to public, taken to cabinet, goes to parliament, committees where members of the public and stake holders are invited for their input and then taken back to parliament.”
“So, I am surprised to hear my friend [Ssebaggala] crying that the laws we have are prohibitive.” Tumwebaze added.
He therefore defended the legal framework Uganda has regarding the cybercrime amid arguing Ugandans to always criticizing government with a view of improving the existing ones because the cybercrime laws are not unique to Uganda.
“If you commit a crime online, you will have to be arrested and prosecuted in court and we have no apologies for that. So, let us take these laws in good faith and don’t necessarily blame us [government] for doing what we should be doing,” said Tumwebaze.
“Cybercrime is real,” Tumwebaze said, “so if it’s real, how do we deal with it and at the same time protecting the rights of the internet users?”
He appealed to the internet activists mainly Unwanted Witness to always guide government on how to balance the two interests, other than criticizing the government.