International H/Rights Day 2016; Why GOU is criminalising the Internet?

During early years of internet penetration in Uganda, many if not all Ugandans who had access to the internet by then utilized the internet majorly to connect with friends and family on socialize matters. The trend continued with the introduction of mobile networks on to the market, enabling users access mobile data in different localities. Even up to date, majority of internet users in Uganda connect via internlet enabled mobile devices.

With time, Ugandans began realizing and tapping into the numerous opportunities that come with connecting onto the internet. Currently over 7 million Ugandans who connect to Internet daily are no longer doing it to simply socialize but rather have found it as an independent platform to express their opinions on any topic including governance issues/ dashboard of ideas, to transact business among others

In this regard the Internet is playing a critical role in the promotion of the right to freedom of information and expression, probably this explains why traditional media houses all over the country are competing for followership online social media including Twitter. Some television stations like NTV have even designed applications for its viewers to watch their programme on Internet enabled mobile devices at any time any where, as news papers also intensify their publication and sales online.

Besides the media, individual citizens and groups of people are actively using the Internet to raise accountability and human rights issues happening in their communities and share information to amplify voices. But this growing citizen vigilance is being perceived negatively by government which seems to be threatened as reflected by acts of either enacting prohibitive Internet laws Internet shutdowns or arrests of online users.

Five (5) years ago, following the Arab Spring Uprising, the attitude of government towards the Internet changed. A number of laws focusing on controlling the Internet with objectives to find charges against Internet users started taking shape. These include; Regulations of Interception of communications Act 2010, Computer Misuse Act 2011, Anti terrorism Act 2002 and Anti Pornography Act 2014 among others, all these legislations have been deemed weak by the Unwanted Witness Research to protect and uphold online freedoms but also contravene article 29 of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, which guarantees citizens right to freedom of speech and expression.
These laws are being enforced by the state to suppress Internet freedoms and of recent criminalize Internet use in Uganda.

According to a digital rights activist Jeff Wokulira Ssebaggala, government came up with these cyber related laws soon after the Arab uprising. He said the state believes that Internet empowers citizens mobilize themselves against bad leadership and therefore laws are meant to scare people and set up crimes for users of cyber related platforms and computers.

This year alone, Ugandans have experienced double Internet shutdowns and several Netizen arrests under unclear circumstances. On 11th January 2016, Charles Rwomushana was waylaid and kidnapped by six plain clothed men who later detained him at the special investigations unit (SIU) of the Uganda police forces for allegedly posting a corpse photo on his Facebook. Rwomushana was charged with libel and promoting sectarianism and released on police bond.

The use of none cyber laws such as the Penal Code Act against Netizen was first witnessed in 2010 when Timothy Kalyegira was arrested for publishing skepticism about the involvement of Al-Shabaab in the 2010 twin bombing in Kampala.

But after using the Penal Code without much success, government recently decided to evoke the anti terrorism act to charge the alleged online offenders. Joy Doreen Biira, a journalist with Kenya Television Network was arrested on Sunday 27th November 2016 by Kasese police for allegedly posting images of police and army raiding the Rwenzururu kingdom. Biira was charged with abetting terrorism under part III 8 of the anti terrorism act 2002, which is punishable by death.

“The laws are now being used against citizens by criminalizing the space, content, and usage. Once this trend continues we are likely to witness shrinking online civic space as people will begin self-censoring themselves,” says Jeff Wokulira Ssebaggala.

He added that unfortunately the laws were hurriedly enacted with lack of expressed views of the citizenry who continue to be ignorant about the content of all these laws yet they infringe on fundamental human rights.

“It is time to popularize the laws and their effects to the enjoyment of online freedoms, how they impact on citizens’ lives, killing the internet and civil rights. Failure to unpack these laws, the country shall be faced with big chilling effects in future,” warned Ssebaggala.

As we commemorate the 2016 International Human Rights day, Ugandan government must appreciate its duty and obligation of protecting and keeping the Internet open to accelerate progress towards development in its various forms to benefit the people of Uganda.