New “computer misuse” law poses grave threat to press freedom in Uganda
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Uganda to urgently repeal an amendment to its Computer Misuse Act criminalising “false information,” which President Yoweri Museveni has signed into law. The Ugandan authorities must safeguard online freedom of expression, RSF says.
Museveni, who has been Uganda’s president since 1986 and who is on RSF’s list of press freedom predators, signed the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act on 13 October, just five weeks after parliament passed it on 8 September.
“This legislation constitutes a very serious attack on press freedom because practicing online journalism in Uganda now means risking the possibility of prison sentences,” said Sadibou Marong, the director of RSF’s sub-Saharan Africa bureau. “Vaguely worded and providing for extremely harsh penalties, this law restricts investigative journalism and compromises access to information for citizens and journalists. We call on the authorities to repeal it at once and to guarantee press freedom in Uganda.”
The law criminalises the online publication of unsolicited hateful, false or malicious information, and prohibits the sharing of information likely to degrade or ridicule a person or group of persons. But it does not define what constitutes "false and malicious information", making it very imprecise.
Ugandans suspect that it will be used to silence dissent. Ordinary citizens and journalists who are convicted under the law would be banned from holding public office for ten years. They could also be fined up to 15 million Ugandan shillings (4,090 euros) and sentenced to up to ten years in prison.
Several media groups and human rights organisations filed a petition with the constitutional court on 17 October calling for the law to be overturned.
One of the plaintiffs is Norman Tumuhimbise, the executive director of Alternative Digitalk, an online TV channel critical of the government. He and a colleague have been charged under the law with “cyber-stalking” President Museveni and “offensive communication” ever since their arrest in March, when they were held provisionally for 11 days although the law limits provisional detention to two days.
They were arrested for publicising two books by Tumuhimbise that take a critical look at Museveni’s policies ever since he became president in 1986. Their arrests were carried out during a raid on Alternative Digitalk on 10 March by security forces, who confiscated equipment and a vehicle.
Journalists are often subjected to threats and sanctions in Uganda. In May 2021, two journalists spent three weeks in prison on criminal libel charges.
Uganda is ranked 132nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2022 World Press Freedom Index.