Digital Political Activism Protected by International Law; However, Activists in Uganda Who Use Social Media Are Vulnerable to Action by the State

Cape Times (South Africa), September 10, 2019 | Go to article overview

Digital Political Activism Protected by International Law; However, Activists in Uganda Who Use Social Media Are Vulnerable to Action by the State


ACTIVISTS WHO use digital media are protected by International Law and protocols that guarantee freedom of expression.

Under International Law, freedom of expression is also protected on the internet and mobile devices. It stands to reason then that the same rights enjoyed off-line should be enjoyed online.

There are also protections in Africa. For example, the African Charter on Human and People's Rights provides that every individual has the right to receive information and to express and disseminate opinions within the law.

African nations are required by regional law to guarantee the right to freedom of information and expression on the internet.

But these rights aren't always protected. Take the case of Uganda. Its constitution protects freedom of expression and the courts have expanded this to include free speech expressed via new forms of technology.

Yet freedom of speech and expression is not a reality in Uganda. The government continues to use domestic laws on electronic communication to crack down on citizens, activists and politicians who criticise the president on the internet.

This is unfortunate. Digital activism in the political sphere is critical. It enables government critics and political activists to hold the government to account.

This is clear from the way in which digital platforms like Facebook have been used by opposition politicians. For instance, Robert "Bobi Wine" Kyagulanyi often shares his message on social media when he is barred from traditional media platforms.

This explains why the Ugandan government is reinterpreting old criminal libel laws and enacting new ones to restrict digital activism.

Activists in Uganda who use social media find themselves vulnerable to action by the state on a number of fronts.

The first is the country's defamation laws. While courts in Kenya, Zimbabwe and elsewhere on the continent have held that criminal defamation laws are unconstitutional, in Uganda the state continues to take a hard stance.

In 2013 for instance, Security Minister Muruli Musaka announced the creation of a social media monitoring centre. The aim, he said, was to weed out those who use it to damage the government and people's reputations.

Then there is the Computer Misuse Act, under which charges such as cyber harassment and offensive communication can be brought. This has happened frequently against online activists.

For example, in 2016 Swaibu Nsamba Gwogyolonga, a political activist, was arrested and charged with offensive communication. The charge was brought because of a picture he'd posted on Facebook of President Yoweri Museveni lying dead in a coffin.

And in 2017, David Mugema and Jonah Muwanguzi were arrested and charged with offensive communication for posting a song on their social media platforms calling for the resignation of Museveni.

The most notorious use of these provisions was the recent conviction of Stella Nyanzi. …

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