KAMPALA – Ugandan activists launched a legal challenge Monday to controversial new legislation criminalizing some internet activity in the East African country.
Their petition to the constitutional court argues that the description of computer-related crimes in the bill enacted with President Yoweri Museveni's signature last week violates the right to freedom of expression and criminalizes some digital work, including investigative journalism.
In presenting their petition at the court in the capital, Kampala, the petitioners were backed by silent protesters who carried placards reading "This law is worth breaking."
The legislation increased the restrictions introduced in a controversial 2011 law on the misuse of computers. The legislation, passed by the national assembly in September, was brought by a lawmaker who said it was necessary to deter those who hide behind computers to hurt others.
The new law proposes jail terms of up to seven years in some cases, including for offenses related to the transmission of information about a person without their consent, as well as the sharing or intercepting of information without authorization.
“Yes, we live in the digital space. But do you have the right to take my picture and use it for your interests?" Muhammad Nsereko, the lawmaker who brought the bill, told The Associated Press by phone Monday.
Opponents of the law say it will stifle freedom of expression in a country where many of Museveni’s opponents — for years unable to stage street protests — often raise their concerns on Twitter and other online sites. Others say it will kill investigative journalism.
Critics range from the Committee to Protect Journalists to Amnesty International, which called the legislation “draconian.”
“This piece of legislation threatens the right to freedom of expression online, including the right to receive and impart information, on the pretext of outlawing unsolicited, false, malicious, hateful, and unwarranted information," Amnesty International's Muleya Mwananyanda said.
“It is designed to deliberately target critics of government and it will be used to silence dissent and prevent people from speaking out.”
While the law has useful provisions such as those protecting the right to privacy, including responsible coverage of children, “it introduces punitive penalties for anyone accused of so-called hate speech,” the statement added.
Museveni, 78, has held power in Uganda since 1986 and won re-election last year. Although he is popular among some Ugandans who praise him for restoring relative peace and economic stability, many of his opponents describe his rule as authoritarian.