Ugandan internet users may continuously be arrested and charged of terrorism due to the absence of a law on data protection, the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) has warned.
According to the UHRC acting chairperson Meddie Mulumba, security agencies hide behind laws such as the Interception of Communications Act, Computer Misuse Act and Anti-terrorism Act to apprehend and prosecute Ugandans over what they publish over social media.
“We have so many vague laws that they try to use to infringe on rights of Ugandans, for instance, how do you use the anti-pornography law to say that you will prosecute someone who has viewed on WhatsApp a message considered to be pornographic? It is like saying that in the case of a motor accident, the road is held liable,” Mulumba said.
He was speaking on November 24 during the launch of a report; state of security for human rights defenders in a digital era, published by Unwanted Witness, a digital rights civil society organisation. It was based on a sample of 153 respondents many of whom journalists, human rights defenders and lawyers.
“Laws are debated in anger and [intimidation from the state] that no one can oppose them like the Anti-terrorism law, because, opposing it is regarded as infringement on national security,” Mulumba said.
The Anti-Terrorism Act was passed 15 years ago to among other reasons, suppress acts of terrorism and to provide for the punishment of persons who plan, instigate, support, finance or execute acts of terrorism.
The report came days after directors and three editors of The Red Pepper had been arrested and kept in detention until Monday, November 27, when they were formally charged of offensive communication, publication of information prejudicial to security, libel.
Following their arrest on November 22, police detectives forced them to surrender passwords of their computers, emails and phones while in police detention.
“Privacy is a qualified right whose interference must only be legitimate, necessary and proportionate, therefore the overbroad invasion of the journalists’ communication endangers their own privacy as well as those that they communicate with,” Unwanted Witness’ acting chief executive officer Dorothy Mukasa said.
According to the report, government invokes the provisions of Section 19 of the Anti-Terrorism Act to intercept communications and conduct surveillance over targeted journalists and human rights defenders. This is reinforced by the Interception of Communications Act 2010 .
“Now more than ever, the safety and security of the online community; particularly human rights defenders have become critical. This is because more people are embracing digital tools especially the internet to enjoy their right to freedom of expression as well as meaningfully participate in political decisions,” the report stated.
This, the report further states, has threatened government that it has chosen to undertake systematic surveillance backed by repressive legislations.
“Unfortunately, many online [users] including human rights defenders are not aware of the nature and extent of digital threats and online surveillance they are being subjected to, nor do they have the knowledge and skills to help them make the necessary measures to protect their data and communication from unlawful interference,” the report stated.
More than half of the respondents in the study claimed to have experienced online threats and surveillance which has had an impact on their work.
The report for instance mentions a human rights activist in Mubende who besides receiving threatening messages through email and other social media platforms has been trailed up to his residence by suspected security personnel.
Among the human rights lawyers and journalists who were interviewed, 75 per cent and 59 per cent respectively reported that the surveillance had negatively impacted on their work and life as human rights defenders.
Mulumba urged civil society organisations to re-engage parliamentarians to have the laws amended and remove room for being abused by security agencies.