Ugandan authorities should drop “the abusive charges” against a 24-year-old law student over a tweet, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
Michael Muhima was charged on May 14, 2021, with “offensive communication” for a tweet he posted in November 2020, parodying the police spokesperson, Fred Enanga. Muhima was jailed and denied access to his family and lawyers for five days before being released on bail.
“By prosecuting Michael Muhima for tweeting a joke, Ugandan authorities are sending a chilling message about their lack of tolerance for free speech online,” said Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of using the threat of prosecution to control what people say, public officials should learn to tolerate criticism and scrutiny, whether serious or in jest.”
Police initially arrested Muhima on February 5, 2021, at his home in Kampala over the November 3, 2020 tweet of a picture of Enanga, captioned, “We arrested Mr. Kyagulanyi as part of our investigation into Mr. Amuriat’s missing shoes.” The tweet referred to the arrest that day of the opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, following the release of another detained opposition presidential candidate, Patrick Amuriat of the Forum for Democratic Change, without his shoes.
Muhima told Human Rights Watch that two armed men in civilian clothes claiming to be contractors with the national water company confiscated his phone, dragged and bundled him into a car, and drove him to the Crime Intelligence Directorate office, where he was questioned about the tweet. Later that day he was transferred to the Special Investigations Unit in Kireka, Kampala, where he was detained for five days without access to family or lawyers. He was released on police bond six days after his arrest.
His treatment was contrary to the provisions of Uganda’s 1995 constitution and international human rights norms, which require the authorities to produce anyone accused of a crime in court within 48 hours and to ensure detainees’ right of access to a lawyer and their family and to receive any needed medical attention. Muhima’s arrest came amid a spate of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances by Ugandan security forces before, during, and after the 2021 elections.
Muhima reported regularly to the police as required under his bond until May 15 when the police drove him to a court, where he was charged and sent to Kitalya Prison outside Kampala. On May 19, he was granted a 500,000 shilling (US$120) bail.
Under the Computer Misuse Act 2011, the crime of “offensive communication” applies to anyone who “willfully and repeatedly uses electronic communication to disturb or attempts to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person.” If found guilty, the offender can be sentenced to pay a fine or to prison for up to a year, or both.
This law has been used to muzzle freedom of expression online, including for alleged criticism of high-ranking government officials. In August 2019, a court convicted and sentenced a well-known academic and activist, Stella Nyanzi, to 18 months in prison for a poem she published on Facebook in 2018 criticizing President Yoweri Museveni. The court ruled that the poem violated provisions of the Computer Misuse law on “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or indecent” content. A high court judge ruled in February 2020 that Nyanzi’s right to a fair trial was violated during those proceedings and revoked her sentence.
In recent years, the authorities have increasingly clamped down on performing artists, media reports, and commentary deemed critical of the government. In 2019, the Uganda Communications Commission passed vague rules prohibiting news that creates “public panic or unnecessary distress.”
In the same year, police indefinitely banned Kyagulanyi, who is also a musician, from holding concerts. The High Court ultimately overturned that order. In July 2020, Ugandan police arrested four comedians of the group “Bizonto” for a satirical video they posted online, accusing the group of “promoting sectarianism” and “causing hatred and unnecessary apprehension.” Under section 41 of the penal code, promoting sectarianism is punishable by up to five years in prison.
“Ugandan authorities should end the increasing criminalization of free speech online and offline,” Nyeko said. “They should do more than pay lip service to the rights and freedoms guaranteed to citizens in the national constitution by addressing legitimate concerns raised by critics instead of stifling them.”