A group of 13 people comprising journalists and lawyers have petitioned the Constitutional court to nullify new amendments in the Computer Misuse Act on grounds that they are illegal and violate the freedom of expression.
The petitioners are Arnold Anthony Mukose, Norman Tumuhimbise, Farida Bikobere, Jeremiah Mukiibi, Kato Tumusiime, Lillian Luwedde, Rogers Tulyahabwe, Teangel Teddy Nabukeera, Nixon Segawa together with their employer Alternative Digitalk Limited, an online TV, activist Angella Namirembe and lawyers Simon Peter Esomu and Anthony Odur.
They have sued the Attorney General through their lawyers; Peter Arinaitwe and Company Advocates. Their suit stems from the decision taken on September 8, 2022, by parliament to pass the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act, 2022 which was subsequently assented to by the president on October 13, 2022.
The controversial law tabled by Kampala Central MP Muhammad Nsereko makes it a crime to write, send or share hateful, unsolicited, misleading, or malicious information online. The law also criminalizes the use of photos on social media without the express permission of the owners.
Further, it prohibits sharing information which is likely to degrade or ridicule another person, group of persons, tribe, religion, ethnicity, or gender, and children without the consent of their parents or guardians.
The same act creates a punishment ranging between 5 and 10 years or Shs 10 million or both for people found in breach. It further criminalizes recording another person’s voice or video without their consent and unauthorized access to personal information. But the petitioners argue that the said amendments are overly broad, imprecise, and unjustifiably limit the freedom of expression.
They argue that the amendments criminalize any access or interception of any program or another person’s data or information, voicing or video recording, sharing of any information, without specifying or defining the said information which offends the rights to freedom of expression, practising one’s profession and carrying on any lawful occupation, trade or business and access to information.
According to the petitioners, the phrase “unsolicited information” as used in the amended act is disproportionate, indiscriminate and overly broad in application because it doesn’t clearly specify what amounts to unsolicited information.
The petition is supported by an affidavit of Arnold Anthony Mukose the programs manager at Alternative Digitalk who says that he has 14 years’ experience in journalism but the new law has far-reaching implications on the right to practice journalism as a trade, access to information, pluralism, among others.
“The impugned law has hindered and complicated our work as digital journalists,” says Mukose. “In particular as an editor, it is an affront to my editorial independence. At the moment I fear to sanction broadcasts on our media platforms because our content may be treated as offensive and ridiculing by a viewer thus attracting prosecution from the state,” said Mukose.
He adds: “Further, given the fact most our talk shows and programmes are broadcast live on our social media platforms it is impracticable for me as the editor to ensure that the information streamed and shared during the live broadcasts does not ridicule, degrade or demean the viewers since the meaning attached “ridiculing”, “degrading” or “demeaning” varies from one person to another.
According to Mukose the contentious law gags the digital media and users by protecting and shielding the public officials from criticism and therefore these officials must grow a hard skin to withstand such criticism, instead of criminalizing it.
“It is also unrealistic and unjustifiable for hosts of our live talk shows, and me as an editor to determine whether that persons we host in our studios have received prior authorization to share information relating to any person since the discourse during live talk shows is fluid by nature,” adds the affidavit.
The petitioners led by Tumuhimbise, the executive director of Alternative Digitalk, thus want the court to declare sections 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the of the Computer Misuse Act as amended to be in contravention of constitutional rights to fair hearing, freedom of expression right to access information among others.
The petitioners who stormed court on Monday with placards with inscriptions such as “this law is worth breaking, “this law is unconstitutional also want the court to stay the implementation of the new law and be paid costs of the petition.
“You know we had thought that President Museveni would have some sympathy and reasonable grounds to send back this law that is why we had even bothered to challenge at even the parliamentary level…As an organisation which runs a media house, we considered it illegal and it’s inconsistent with the supreme law especially when it comes to freedom of speech and expression. You see expression in its own definition is expressing how I feel about anything. So the mere fact that someone should come and assess what I should post as part of my expression and what I feel that alone is an illegality,” said Tumuhimbise.
According to Ugandan laws, a law is operationalized once it has been gazetted in the National Gazette which hasn’t yet been done at the moment with the Computer Misuse Act of 2022 as amended.
This is not the first time that the Computer Misuse Act is being challenged. In 2019, the Uganda Law Society challenged the act specifically the sections that create the offences of offensive communication and cyber harassment on grounds that they violate freedom of expression. The Constitutional court is yet to decide on that case.