As the world celebrates the internet freedom day, a new report released by a local based civil society organization has accused government of continued efforts to stifle internet freedoms.
The report released on Friday by Unwanted Witness, a civil society organization that advocates for safe and accessible online platforms for the realization of human rights has said that the year 2018 saw a number of efforts by government to crack down on internet users.
“One of the most alarming digital rights violation was the passing of the Excise Duty Amendment Act 2018 which introduced charges on the use of social media in Uganda. The social media tax has with no doubt negatively impacted on low income Ugandans and their ability to access internet as a human right,” the report highlighted.
As part of the Excise Duty Amendment Act 2018 which came into effect in July last year, government introduced a daily tax of shs200 for each subscriber to access social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram among others.
A number of internet users have since done away with social media whereas other started using virtual sites including VPN to access social media without paying the taxes.
The report by Unwanted Witness says the new tax was one of the ways the Ugandan government stifled freedoms of citizens to enjoy internet.
“One step forward and two steps back is the best way to describe efforts by Ugandans to gain the constitutionality laid out freedoms of speech and expression,” adds the report.
Crackdown on internet users
The report also says that government has increased its crackdown on internet users by introducing laws that penalize the use of internet.
The report points out the Computer Misuse Act, 2011 which it says has been evoked to arrest and detain a number of Ugandans who use the internet.
“The now notorious cyber law has been widely and repeatedly evoked to arrest, detain and interrogate journalists, activists, bloggers, human rights defenders and opposition politicians in the bid to gang dissent, stifle freedom of speech, and generally violate digital rights.”
The report adds, “Just like sedition, the Computer Misuse Act, 2011 is used to perpetually keep victims in and out of either police or court rooms since none of the cases has ever been conclusively determined. Section 25 of the Act has been a potent weapon.”
Speaking at the launch of the report, Unwanted Witness Chief Executive Officer, Dorothy Mukasa said that members of the first family have used the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 to stifle internet freedoms for many citizens.
“Members of the first family have prominently featured as the highly offended group by internet users but none of them has ever come to court to testify about the same,”Mukasa told journalists in Kampala.
Journalists most affected
The report has also indicated that journalists at 80% were the most affected members of the community by the various internet laws in 2018 adding that a number of them have been arrested and detained using the Computer Misuse Act 2011.
Online Journalists including Richard Wanambwa (Eagle Online), Giles Muhame (Chimp Reports), Darius Mugisha(Matooke Republic), Tadeo Ssenyonyi (Business Focus), John Njoroge (CEO Magazine), Bob Atwine(Spy Reports) and Andrew Irumba from the Spy have been mentioned as journalists who have been victim to cyber laws in 2018
“Majority of these continue to battle with the charges at the Criminal Investigations Department headquarters in Kibuli.”
The report however said internet penetration and usage in Uganda has continued to grow in the year 2018 adding that 13 million people out of the over 40 people in Uganda now use the internet.
It is also said that many people have continued to use internet to express themselves and also fight for their rights from being violated by others.
“Uganda registered an increase in digital activism by initiating and collectively participating in online campaigns protesting social and economic injustices including protests against social media tax. #StayinYourLane, was one of the popular online campaigns used to curb reckless driving and also instill respect of other road users by drivers, among others.”
The report however calls upon a number of stakeholders to ensure section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act, 2011 is nullified in order to protect freedom of expression as a cornerstone for democracy.