Uganda’s Anti-Terrorism Act (2002) prohibits the organisation, supporting, or promotion of terrorism, as well as the publication and dissemination of related materials. With regard to content regulation, The Uganda Communications Act 2013 establishes broadcasting and content standards across a variety of media and states that no content should promote violence or prejudice, distort facts, or create “public insecurity or violence”. In 2021, the Ugandan government blocked domestic internet access for five days in the midst of an election. This internet shutdown, coupled with legislative provisions that have been criticised as ambiguous in scope while meeting stiff penalties for prohibited conduct, have generally created an online environment where freedom of expression online is constrained.
Uganda’s Regulatory Framework:
- The Anti-terrorism Act of 2002 prohibits actions both constitutive and supportive of terrorism, as well as the publication and dissemination of related materials. Individuals found guilty of such offences can be sentenced to the death penalty. The means of publishing and disseminating news or materials that promotes terrorism is not specified, and therefore can apply to online content.
- The Penal Code Act 1950 provides Uganda’s general framework for assigning criminal responsibility, and explicitly includes incitement of violence as well as preparing or committing acts of terrorism. The Act makes a specific provision for Terrorism, of which perpetrators, who may be sentenced to life imprisonment, include: any person who engages in or carries out acts of terrorism; and any person who aids, finances, harbours or in any other way renders support to any other person, knowing or having reason to believe that such support will be applied or used for or in connection with the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.
- The Uganda Communications Act, 2013 regulates broadcasting standards and content across a variety of media, and stipulates that such content should not promote violence or prejudice, distort facts, or create “public insecurity or violence”. It additionally prescribes the functions of the Uganda Communications Commission, and establishes the organisation’s mandate to superintend the provision of communications services in Uganda.
- The Computer Misuse Act 2011 concerns the safety and security of electronic transactions and information systems; it contains provisions to prevent unlawful access to and the abuse or misuse of information systems, including personal computers, and to secure the conduct of electronic transactions in a trustworthy electronic environment.
- The Tax Amendment Bill 2021 came into force on 1 July 2021. The amendments are intended to “improve tax administration, reduce tax leakages, and enhance revenues collected by the Tax Authority. The Act amended Schedule 2 to the Excise Duty Act to allow for variations in excise duty including the duty on Internet data (except data for the provision of medical and educational services) of 12% of the fee charged. The legislation also repealed from July 1, 2021 the OTT services tax, a daily 200 shilling ($0.05) tax on social media use that is often called the social media tax.
Relevant National Bodies:
- The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) was created by the Communications Act to monitor, license, and regulate communications providers, and to inspect and enforce organisational compliance with content standards.
Key Takeaways for Tech Companies:
- The Penal Code Act, 1950 prohibits the diffusion of content which qualifies as an incitement to violence. Perpetrators of which include any person who, “without lawful excuse, prints, publishes or to any assembly makes any statement indicating or implying” an incitement to violence.
- Section 31 of The Uganda Communications Act, 2013 outlines broadcasting standards requirements, and makes the following provisions:
- platforms will be expected to fulfil the “duties of a licensee and producer,” which stipulate that “the holder of a licence or a producer of a broadcasting station or disseminating apparatus shall […] ensure that what is broadcast is not contrary to public morality.”
- under the minimum broadcasting standards, nothing may be broadcast which does not comply with Schedule 4, which requires any broadcaster or video operator to ensure that any programme which is broadcast—
- is not contrary to public morality;
- does not promote the culture of violence or ethnical prejudice among the public, especially the children and the youth;
- in the case of a news broadcast, is free from distortion of facts;
- is not likely to create public insecurity or violence;
- is in compliance with the existing law.
- Violation of Schedule 4 of the Uganda Communications Act, 2013 may result in an order to remedy the situation. However, Section 41 also allows the UCC to fine an operator up to ten percent of its gross annual revenue, and to suspend or revoke a licence.
- Under Section 41, the UCC may suspend or revoke a licence issued under this Act, including on the grounds of: serious and repeated breach of the licence conditions; where the operator is engaged in or is supporting activities amounting to a treasonable offence under the Penal Code Act.
- Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act, 2011 criminalises the wilful and repeated use of electronic communication to disturb or attempt to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person:
- “Any person who wilfully and repeatedly uses electronic communication to disturb or attempts to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication whether or not a conversation ensues commits a misdemeanour and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty four currency points or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both.”
- Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act, 2011 stipulates a fine not exceeding 24 currency points (USD 178) or imprisonment not exceeding twelve months, or both.
- In 2017, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) issued a notice calling for online users to avoid “authoring, posting, receiving, and sharing or forwarding any forms of communication containing and/or referring to illegal and/or offensive content to avoid the risk of being investigated and/or prosecuted for aiding and abetting the commission of any resultant offenses.”
- In March 2018, the UCC issued a directive requiring all online publishers and news platforms to register for authorisation to operate, and to pay a fee of $20 per annum. The UCC registration requirement was extended in August 2019 to cover social media influencers, politicians, and celebrities with a large following.
Tech Against Terrorism’s Analysis and Commentary
Social Media Access
According to Freedom House, the Ugandan Government “has a history of blocking access to social media and communications platforms altogether during politically sensitive moments.” Global Partners Digital has also noted that “under the premise of protecting “national security”, the Ugandan government shut down internet access in the country for five days in January 2021, “against the backdrop of an election marred by reports of state violence”. Access to social media and the internet generally has been restricted through the OTT Tax since 2018, and the above-mentioned five day internet shutdown in 2021. Civil society groups voiced concerns that the OTT Tax would make access more expensive and restrict connectivity. Though some Ugandan internet users turned to virtual private networks to evade the tax, the heavy data use of such tools raises further affordability concerns. These barriers directly harm the human rights of users in Uganda in impeding both their access to information and through internet shutdowns, impacts their freedom of expression online.
Freedom of Speech
According to Global Partners Digital, the Penal Code, the Uganda Communications Act 2013, and the Computer Misuse Act, 2011 together could prove detrimental to human rights. “They are ill-defined in their scope, meaning that authorities could interpret them as giving them power to restrict a wide range of speech; and they pursue aims which would not be considered “legitimate” according to international human rights standards.” For example, Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act 2011 criminalises the wilful and repeated use of electronic communication to disturb or attempt to disturb the peace, quiet or right to privacy of any person. However, it is unclear what constitutes a disturbance of the peace, quiet or right to privacy of any person; furthermore, the broad scope of more recent statutes in particular could permit the prosecution of individuals for disseminating content such as disinformation.
Ambiguous definitions of what constitutes harmful content can be abused to repress legitimate speech and political dissent. Combined with the stiff penalties envisaged by Section 41 of the Communications Act 2013, which empowers the UCC to fine an operator up to 10% of its gross annual revenue, and to suspend or revoke a broadcasting licence, and which places exclusively on platforms the burden of removing harmful content,, the ambiguity of Ugandan law risks the over-removal of content which could, in turn, profoundly impact freedom of expression online in Uganda.