Ugandans who violate privacy of others, or smudge their reputation, online will not be eligible to hold public office or stand for election, if convicted under provisions of a proposed law tabled in Parliament yesterday.
Titled The Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill, 2022, the object of the Bill tabled by Kampala Central Member of Parliament Muhammad Nsereko, is to “enhance the provisions on unauthorised access to information or data; to prohibit the sharing of any information relating to a child without authorisation from a parent or guardian; [and] to prohibit the sending or sharing of information that promotes hate speech”.
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It proscribes recording of a person’s voice or video without permission, or unauthorised access to their personal information, and seeks to render a person convicted under the proposed law ineligible for public or elective office for a decade and imposes a fine of Shs15m or imprisonment not exceeding 10 years, or both.
The mover, MP Nsereko, said the proposals are to strike a balance between enjoyment of rights and protection of individual privacy by criminalising abuses on social media platforms and sharing online of unsolicited, false, malicious, hateful or unwarranted information.
“Regrettably, some of these abuses have also stretched to children where information about, or that related to them, is shared on social media platforms without their parents’ or guardians’ consent,” he said, arguing that planned law is to plug loopholes in the Computer Misuse Act.
Parliament Speaker Anita Among referred the Bill after it was tabled yesterday for the first reading, to the House Committee on ICT and National Guidance that will collect public views and scrutinise the Bill.
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However, the start of the process was not without a bump, and some of its provisions appeared to polarise civil liberty and rights defenders.
For instance, the Bill was tabled without a certificate of financial implication, a crucial document that the Ministry of Finance is to issue as proof that either the new law, if enacted, will not impose additional charges on the consolidated funds, or that the law provides for mechanisms to raise money to implement its provisions.
Speaker Among, who presided over yesterday’s sitting, said the law allowed the House to consider a proposed legislation without a certificate of financial implication if Finance ministry does not provide one, or fails to explain its refusal, sixty days after receiving a request from an MP intending to table a Private member’s Bill.
We were unable to establish why MP Nsereko was not given a certificate of financial implication for his Bill that Ugandan Human Rights Commission (UHRC) separately told this newspaper contained “good” provisions.
“From the little that I have heard, Nsereko has great intentions in the Bill especially in the provision that seeks to protect children. He must have authored it based on his experience as a lawyer, father and leader in this country…I think this is a just Bill,” she said, citing strengthened protection of children against cyberspace exposure and abuse.
She said her team will scrutinise the proposals clause by clause and make recommendations that the ICT and National Guidance Committee of Parliament, which is collecting handling the Bill and due to collect public opinion about it.
However, rights defenders, among them Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-U) and a digital rights policy advocate, CIPESA, questioned the motive, timing, “over criminalisation” and risk of duplication.
“We already have provisions in other laws dealing with hate speech, defamation and children’s rights,” said Mr Paul Kimumwe, the senior programme officer at Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), a research and policy centre.
He added: “This [existing] law has not been tested and found to be lacking; so, the timing of these amendments is really suspect given that its main emphasis is on the penalties. The amendments should have been guided by court decisions.”
MP Nsereko in February, this year, sought leave of Parliament to introduce the Private Member’s Bill after the House leadership, and some individual legislators, were various assailed on social media.
In a briefing to journalists yesterday, he said “punitively, if someone is convicted under some sections/clauses in this Bill, they cannot hold public office.”
Mr Robert Ssempala, the HRNJ-U executive director, told this publication yesterday that this Bill is an attempt to curtail press freedom and freedom of expression.
“From what I know, it seem Nsereko’s Bill is targeting press freedom and access to information. He wants to use the law to protect those who are in big positions and make them not to account for their actions,” he said.
He wondered why the Kampala Central legislator would propose amendments when the current legal regimes in place have not been exhausted.
Mr Ssempala warned that if Parliament goes ahead to pass the amendments in their current forms, they should also prepare for sustained legal battles.
“They have not consulted anybody and you wonder why they are rushing with this Bill. If there is something they are hiding and go ahead to pass this Bill, we have prepared for them and we shall engage the Parliament in legal battles to ensure that the constitutional gains are protected,” he argued.
In defence of his Bill, Mr Nsereko said while the advancement in computer-generated technology through the use of Internet has brought huge economic, social and educational benefits, the downside is that is has created channels for the abuse of rights and freedoms of others, especially, the right to privacy.
The proposals, he argued, reflect a global standard to address evolving technological changes and challenges.
“I found the same is going to be done in the UK, US while India and China have done the same. Let me tell you, in this, you either spare the rod or spoil the entire child. With every evolution that comes out in technology, we need to be compatible with the cyber space and the crimes that are there to it,” he said.
But is he curtailing freedoms? The legislator’s answer to critics is, “[whose rights am I] curtailing? If someone is going to wake up on a daily basis to fabricate falsehood and some people use these falsehoods to earn money, someone publishes something that is wrong and puts it on YouTube and earns money, no, this should not be acceptable”.
The Bill provides that a person shall not send, share or transmit any information about or relating to a child through a computer unless the person obtains consent of the child’s parent, guardian, or any other person having authority to make decisions on behalf of the child.
It criminalises the writing, sending or sharing of any information through a computer, which is likely to ridicule, degrade or demean another person, group of persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion or gender; create divisions among persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion or gender; and or, promote hostility against a person, group of persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion or gender.
Violations will lead to prosecution and, upon conviction, Shs15m penalty or time in jail.