By the close of the year 2017, at least 25 Ugandans were facing trial in different courts over charges related to use of the internet to express themselves, a report by the Unwanted Witness, a digital rights NGO has indicated.
In a statement issued on January 18, the World Internet Freedom day, Dorothy Mukasa, Unwanted Witness’ acting chief executive officer said that her organization had registered over 25 cases of internet users who had been arrested, kidnapped or interrogated by the police over their online content.
This, according to Mukasa is in contravention of Article 29 of the Constitution, which provides for freedom of expression and speech, in addition to the right to access to information enshrined under Article 41 of the 1995 Constitution.
“Between January and December 2017, we recorded 13 cases of journalists from different media houses who were arrested, another journalist working with NTV was kidnapped in addition to four musicians, two political activists, six UPDF officers and one academic were arrested and charged over posts they had made online,” Mukasa said.
The six UPDF soldiers; Capt Emmanuel Kyamwiru from the Special Forces Command (SFC), Capt Shemu Nakora of Armored Warfare Training School-Kalama, Lt Wilson Kahamba, Lt Ronald Watwaluma, Lt Ronald Kabagambe and Lt Michael Asiimwe all from Oliver Tambo Leadership School Kaweweta were arrested late last year for sharing what was deemed to be classified information on the social messaging application, WhatsApp.
They were charged under Section 7 of the UPDF Act and sentenced to two months imprisonment at Makindye military prison. The non-military suspects are still facing trial for offensive communication and cyber harassment contrary Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act.
“The year 2017 registered the highest number of Ugandans ever arrested for their online expression. These arrests are clearly targeted crackdowns on the free flow of information and speech on the internet,” Mukasa said.
“The arrests are meant to instigate fear and self-censorship among internet users which is an indication of government’s growing intolerance of critical online commentary,” she added.
Globally, Uganda is rated as partially free according to the Freedom of the Net 2017 report compiled by the US based Freedom House.
The low ranking is based on laws such as the Regulation of Interception of Communication Act 2010, Anti-terrorism Act 2002, Uganda Communications Act 2017 and the Computer Misuse Act 2011.
“Government’s surveillance on citizens’ communications has expanded in light of government’s growing hostility towards political opposition and online criticism,” Mukasa said.
“The planned automatic mobile phone monitoring by Uganda Communications Commission [UCC] is part of the measures to compromise users’ privacy and anonymous communication given the fact that the majority of internet users in Uganda connect via mobile enabled devices,” she said.
She called for the amendment of repressive provisions of the existing cyber laws that are used by the government to criminalise online free speech.
She also asked parliament’s committee on ICT to prioritise the passage of the Privacy and Data protection Bill to protect abuse of personal data.