Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill, 2022 A Blessing To The NRM Regime – Denis Mugonza Waggumbulizi

The Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill, 2022 which was tabled by Kampala Central Legislator, Muhammad Nsereko was considered and passed during a plenary sitting by Parliament on Thursday 8th September 2022. The bill sought to amend the Computer Misuse Act, 2011. #Uganda #UgandaNews

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Among others, the object of the bill was to prohibit the sharing of any information relating to a child without authorization from a parent or guardian; to prohibit the sending or sharing of information that promotes hate speech; to provide for the prohibition of sending or sharing false, malicious and unsolicited information. Clause 2 of the bill sought to amend section 12 of the Computer Misuse Act, to criminalize hacking of another person’s electronic device and publishing information obtained therefrom. “A person who, without authorization, (a) accesses or intercepts any program or another person’s data or information; (b) voice or video records another person; or (c) shares any information about or that relates to another person, commits an offence,” reads Clause 2. Clause 7 on the Penalty was deleted. This is because additional penalty instituted on leaders and public officials on top of the criminal sanctions created under the Computer Misuse Act is excessive and discriminatory.

A new clause to regulate Social media “Misuse of Social media” has been inserted. A person who uses Social media to publish, distribute or share information, prohibited under the laws of Uganda or using a disguised or false identity, commits an offense. Where the information under subsection (1) is published, shared, or distributed on a Social media account of an Organization, the person who manages the Social media account of the Organization shall be held personally liable for the commission of the offence. Under this Bill, a person who commits the offence under the clause in issue shall, on conviction, suffer either a fine of 16 million, five years in jail or both fine and imprisonment.

I find this bill unconstitutional and the House should not have passed it. The entire bill should not be part of our laws as all the clauses are already catered for in existing legislation, and in some instances offends the Constitution; the fundamental rights to access information electronically and to express oneself over computer networks are utterly risked by this bill. If Museveni assents to this bill into law, it will stifle the acquisition of information; the penalties proposed in the bill are overly harsh and disproportionate when compared to similar offences in other legislations; this bill if passed, it will be a bad law and liable to constitutional petitions upon assent. The bill encroaches on the freedoms of the press especially investigative journalism. If this bill becomes a law, it will favor and increase the already arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture going on in the country at the hands of government security forces against political opponents because of their political beliefs. 

The bill itself is not fair in any democracy-seeking sect or country. We need to make laws that are fair for everyone. I hope the government will not use the legislation in the amendment of the Computer Misuse Act to persecute opposition and people with opinions different from the status quo. Even where pieces of legislation have provisions that are permissible, the implementation itself becomes restrictive. In this country, every DPC and RDC has their own interpretation of the Public Order Management Act. That in itself has become a challenge.

The public especially the youth should be cautious when using social media. As we say in law, even when you disagree with the law, you first comply with it. There is an amendment in the Computer Misuse Act. People should be acquainted with it, whether they agree with it or not. This bill calls for self-censorship, including the legislators who passed it. They are not immune to prosecution once they offend this law. There is going to be self-censorship on the side of citizens, too, and it is going to affect accountability, especially for the leaders. When you don’t have freedom of expression, you don’t have democracy, which has a connection with your economy. They ought to have described and not defined hate speech in the bill. Social media is one of the platforms the citizens have had to hold their leaders accountable and participate in governance. There is need to define these laws with more clarity and justification. When you have a regime that has gone after many of those with dissenting voices, you realize maybe the spirit with which they have been brought is interesting. We have sentencing guidelines in Uganda. We must be very careful in criminalizing aspects related to freedom because of the susceptibility to abuse that we have been seeing over time. I am not among those who are firm believers in punitive or very excessive punishment, especially when we are in a country where the law can be used for other purposes other than punishment.

The National Unity Platform members are on remand and are being charged with the law of offending Mr. Museveni. Now you ask, who went and asked the President whether certain communication offended him, and when do we know that the President is offended or not? We always ask in court who the complainant is? As a country, our aspiration should be to attain a certain level of democracy, and you cannot be a democratic society if people are not free to express themselves. As an attorney, one of the challenges we keep facing is penal provisions that lack clarity. When there are poorly drafted provisions, the legislators are to blame. Any law ought to be as clear as possible. What this bill does, without being clear, is being more restrictive and shrinking the already small space for public discourse and sharing of ideas, among others. Many NUP supporters are still in prison for alleged treason, but it was for expressing themselves.

The Museveni regime is restrictive when it comes to matters of fundamental rights and freedoms. The first thing that the regime did when they came into power was to have a legal regime that is restrictive. Some people have been arrested, i think NUP supporters, for celebrating the death of Gen. Elly Tumwine. It is very unfortunate! Some sections of the world are celebrating the death of the Queen, and for us, we think that those unfavorable opinions are the reason why freedom of expression should be protected. Where you have a free flow of information and expression, that is democracy. If you ask me if we need to regulate social media, definitely, yes. If we need to regulate the limits of freedom of expression, yes. However, they ought to be justifiable and reasonable. As it stands, the computer misuse (amendment) bill, 2022 is a blessing to the NRM regime but not the public.