ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa welcomes the 11 January 2023 ruling of the Constitutional Court of Uganda, which declared section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act null and void. The section has often been abused by Ugandan authorities to crack down on critical voices.
In the case, the petitioners argued that Section 25, No. 2 of 2011 of the Computer Misuse Act is a form of censorship that restricts the free flow of opinions and ideas.They were therefore calling on the court to make a declaration to the effect that section 25 is inconsistent with and/or in contravention of Article 29(1) of the constitution and should not be enforced. They also sought grant orders ordering the Director of Prosecution (DPP) to stay the trials of all citizens currently charged for violating the Act .
‘We are glad that the Constitutional Court observed that section 25 is unjustifiable, as it curtails free speech in a democratic society, is vague, overly broad and ambiguous. It is therefore inconsistent with Article 29(1) of the Constitution and Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 9(2) of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR),’ noted Mugambi Kiai, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa Regional Director.
While we welcome and celebrate this progressive ruling by the court, there remain greater challenges to freedom of expression posed by the Computer Misuse Act, including amendments made in October 2022.
Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act defines offensive communication as 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 the conversation ensues. It prescribes a fine not exceeding 24 currency points or imprisonment not exceeding one year, or both. The ambiguities presented by Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act leave ample room and discretion for authorities to determine what qualifies as offensive communication, opening the door for abuse and a crackdown on critical voices.
The Act has often been used to crack down on critics and curtail their freedom of expression. For instance, Stella Nyanzi was arrested for allegedly insulting the president on social media, and charged and convicted for cyber harassment, but later acquitted. Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was also arrested, arbitrarily detained and later charged with offensive communication related to a series of tweets he posted about President Museveni and his son, harassment that ultimately forced him to flee the country. In September 2022, Teddy Nalubowa was arbitrarily detained for 13 days and charged with offensive communication for allegedly ‘wilfully and repeatedly using electronic communication on Facebook and TikTok to disturb the peace, quiet or right to privacy of President Museveni’.
‘ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa notes that while matters in court were specific to section 25, the rest of the Computer Misuse Act should also be reviewed with a view to align it with international human rights standards,’ observed Mugambi. ‘We also call on other states in the Eastern Africa region, specifically Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Rwanda, to follow suit in the review of restrictive laws and policies that target critical voices and stifle legitimate expression both online and offline.’