Nairobi, September 28, 2022 – The Committee to Protect Journalists on Wednesday called on Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni not to sign into law a bill that would undermine press freedom by criminalizing speech sent via computer on a broadly defined and vaguely worded range of grounds.
On September 8, Uganda’s Parliament passed the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill, 2022, which would impose criminal penalties and fines when a computer is used to commit offenses including the unauthorized dissemination of information, ridiculing or demeaning individuals, promoting hostility among groups of people, publishing “malicious” information, and the “misuse of social media,” according to an official record of the parliamentary debate, a report by Parliament’s Information, Communication Technology and National Guidance committee, and media reports.
The bill proposes amendments to a 2011 law, the Computer Misuse Act, which already contains provisions that have been used to target journalists and critics, as CPJ has documented. The new Computer Misuse bill was passed despite criticism by Ugandan press rights organizations and digital rights groups, according to media reports.
Under Article 91 of Uganda’s constitution, the president has 30 days to either assent or reject bills passed by parliament.
“Ugandan legislators have taken the wrong turn in attempting to make an already problematic law even worse. If this bill becomes law, it 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. “President Yoweri Museveni should reject the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill, 2022. He should send it back to Parliament with a request that legislators amend the existing law in a manner that promotes, rather than undermines, press freedom.”
The bill, tabled in July by Muhammad Nsereko, an independent member of parliament, proposes imprisonment of 10 years and/or a fine of up to 15 million Ugandan shillings (US$3,898) for people convicted of accessing or intercepting information without authorization or sharing “any information about or that relates to another person” without consent. This provision would undermine investigative journalism and make it difficult for the press to hold officials to account, said press and digital rights advocates, as well as legal experts, in submissions to Parliament’s ICT committee before the bill was passed, according to media reports as well as parliamentary records of these proceedings.
Hate speech, which under the proposed law includes information likely to “ridicule, degrade or demean another person, group of persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion or gender,” to “promote hostility” against them, or to “create divisions” among them, would be punishable with up to seven years in prison and/or a fine of 15 million shillings (US$3,898). Those convicted of sharing “malicious information about or relating to any person through a computer” would also face up to seven years in prison.
Conviction for “misuse of social media,” defined as publishing or distributing information “prohibited under the laws of Uganda or using disguised or false identity” on various online platforms, including Twitter and TikTok, would carry a prison term of up to five years and/or a fine of up to 10 million shillings (US$2,595). Parliament passed this provision, which was not included in the original draft bill without public consultation, according to an analysis by the Ugandan rights group the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and a dissenting parliamentary opinion by opposition parliamentarian Gorreth Namugga, a member of the ICT committee.
CPJ emails to the clerk of Uganda’s parliament, Speaker Anita Annet Among, and Nsereko did not receive responses. Calls to Among and Nsereko, on phone numbers listed on Parliament’s website, did not connect, and messages sent to these numbers returned delivery errors.
When reached over the telephone, an official in Parliament’s public affairs office referred CPJ to Joseph Sabiti, Among’s press secretary. In a telephone conversation on September 26, Sabiti said he would address CPJ’s queries the following day. He did not respond to queries sent via messaging application or answer CPJ’s phone calls on September 27 and September 28.