Kampala, Uganda — Media freedom activists in Uganda have decried President Yoweri Museveni’s signing of the Computer Misuse Act into law, saying its vague wording will be used to silence government critics.
The law, which Museveni signed Thursday, bans the use of social media to publish, distribute or share information prohibited under the laws of Uganda. It also bans the use of a disguised or false identity online. Violators could face jail terms of five to 10 years.
In June, Ugandan journalist Agather Atuhaire tweeted and broke a story about how parliament approved the procurement of luxury cars for Speaker Anita Among and her deputy, Thomas Tayebwa. The vehicles cost over $730,000, causing an uproar from the public.
A week later, Kampala Central Legislator Muhammad Nsereko introduced the bill to control social media use.
Atuhaire told VOA the new law duplicates others on the books and is designed to cripple investigative journalism.
“Everything in there is ridiculous,” Atuhaire said. “It is saying that we can’t publish unsolicited information. The freedom of expression that the constitution guarantees doesn’t require me to first seek solicitation for my information. Freedom of expressing talks about imparting information, receiving it, disseminating it, so that’s really limiting.”
The law also mandates jail sentences of up to five years and penalties of $3,900 for users who share information about children without the authorization of parents or guardians.
Using a video or voice of an individual without authorization could lead to a 10-year prison term.
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo, said the law, right from its creation, was surprising. She said she was dismayed at the definition of hate speech in the law.
“Hate speech is defined to include things like demeaning or ridiculing an individual,” she said. “That is a personal reputational concern. If you look at the provisions about spreading malicious information, is it going to be malicious if you investigate and publish allegations of corruption of political actors, if you critique their behavior? And depending on who’s interpreting that, we are going to see people being muzzled.”
Recently, the president’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba was promoted to the position of general despite boasting on Twitter that Ugandan forces were capable of invading and taking over Kenya. Museuveni was forced to send a written apology to Nairobi.
Human rights lawyer Eron Kiiza expressed fear that the new law would curb those who dare to criticize such tweets.
“For example, if you’re in the military and you fall out with the military top guys, this law would be used against you as long as you speak something,” Kiiza said. ” … People who are going to oppose the Muhoozi project, they are the primary target and will be the worst victims. And any verbal opposition will be strangulated with ruthlessness using the prism of this law.”
Speaking to VOA, Information Minister Chris Baryomunsi said the law was meant to promote responsible use of social media and the internet.
“The message from the amendment is that please do not forward messages which are insulting, which are immoral, which do not meet the standards of the country. Do not initiate offensive messages. It’s an innocent law, in my view,” the minister said.
Press freedom activists said they were going to challenge the law in court, with hopes of having it repealed.