The Computer Misuse Act of 2011 (the “Act”) provides “for the safety and security of electronic transactions and information systems; to prevent unlawful access, abuse or misuse of information systems including computers”; and provides “for securing the conduct of electronic transactions in a trustworthy electronic environment.”
The Act began as Computer Misuse Bill No. 23, introduced by the Uganda Law Reform Commission in 2008 to “enable the utilisation of the opportunities emanating from the rise in the use of Information and Communication Technologies in the country” and “create a conducive environment that was free of abuse and misuse.”
The Act was a timely response to a worldwide surge in cybercrime. From 2007 to 2008, the estimated cost of global cybercrime was approximately $8 billion. In Uganda, “cybercrime was responsible for the loss of about 1.5 billion Uganda shillings in mobile money fraud.”
Summary of act
Cyber harassment, defined as “the use of a computer” to make an “obscene, lewd, lascivious or indecent” overture (“request, suggestion or proposal”); threaten “to inflict injury or physical harm” to a person or that person’s property; or “knowingly permit any electronic communications device to be used for any of [these] purposes” is punishable by “a fine not exceeding seventy two currency points or imprisonment not exceeding three years or both.”
Offensive communication, defined as the “willful and repeated use of electronic communication to disturb or attempt to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication whether or not a conversation ensues” is punishable by “a fine not exceeding twenty four currency points or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both.”
In recent years, human rights advocates have called on lawmakers to amend Sections 24 and 25, which, they contend, violate the Ugandan Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19(2)) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Article 9(2)).
Both provisions are vague and overly broad, giving law enforcement unfettered discretion to punish unpopular or critical protected expression. The Human Rights Advocate noted what constitutes an offense, stating that the statute is “unpredictable and gives the law enforcer the discretion to pick and choose what qualifies as offensive.”
Section 24 on cyber harassment fails to define “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or indecent,” and Section 25 on offensive communication is similarly vague. It fails to define what it means to “disturb or attempt to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person.”
Authorities have used both provisions to target political opponents, dissidents, and activists, and human rights advocates warn that the LGBTI community, sex workers, and other marginalized groups may be next.
In 2015, authorities charged Robert Shaka with offensive communication for posting Facebook statements about President Museveni’s health. In December 2016, authorities arrested Swaibu Nsamba Gwogyolonga, an opposition leader, for posting on Facebook a photoshopped picture of President Museveni in a coffin and, in April 2017, Dr. Stella Nyanzi faced charges of cyber harassment and offensive communication for insulting the president and his wife on Facebook.
In 2017, Unwanted Witness Uganda and the Uganda Human Rights Enforcement Foundation petitioned the Constitutional Court, seeking a declaration that Section 25, “as applied in relation to a politician or a person who has assumed public roles,” is unconstitutional. As of July 2019, scheduling for a final hearing is underway.