The government is on the hunt for social media users who earlier this week declared Speaker of Parliament Jacob Oulanyah dead.
Mr Oulanyah was airlifted to a Seattle hospital in the United States of America on February 4 to receive specialist treatment after spending several days at Mulago National Referral Hospital. The government did not give details of his stay in the United States, but reports from some officials, including Vice President Ms. Anita Among, later said the President was “receiving and responding to treatment” and needed prayers for his healing.
Ms Among alongside Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo, Minister of Health Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, Democratic Party Chairman Mr Nobert Mao and some members of Oulanyah’s family visited in the United States on Tuesday to monitor it.
After reports of their trip went viral, several social media users began speculating about the president’s health, with some declaring him dead.
Yesterday, Ms Among tweeted saying that the President “…receives and responds to treatment under the close attention of his doctors. Keep him in our prayers for a speedy and full recovery. I urge the public to respect their privacy and that of the family.
Speaking at the Uganda Media Centre, Minister of ICT and National Guidance, Mr Chris Baryomunsi said on Friday that the government is looking for people who abuse other people on the internet and falsely declare them dead. The minister says they are working with the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) to find those responsible and once they have them they will bring them to justice.
“There are those who communicate in an offensive way like declaring someone dead certain cases that we take care of as a government. We are now tracking down the authors of the messages that circulated. Thanks to UCC, we can trace the person behind the messages,” he said.
The government plans to charge the said people under the Computer Misuse Act 2011. The law provides for 13 offenses including cyberstalking, wire fraud, unauthorized disclosure of passcode, and unauthorized access.
Others include cyber-harassment and offensive communication which, Baryomunsi pointed out, are those commonly committed against government officials.
According to the law, a person found guilty of cyber-harassment can be fined not more than Shs 1.22 million (seventy-two currency points) or imprisoned for not more than three years or both.
Persons found guilty of deliberately and repeatedly using electronic communications such as computers to disturb or attempt to disturb a person’s peace may be fined up to Shs 480,000 (twenty-four currency points ) or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or both.
Mr. Baryomunsi reminded Ugandans that freedom of expression comes with responsibilities that media users must respect. He urged Ugandans to report people who offend them using online platforms.
“The government has liberalized the media space and we believe in freedom of expression, but again we want to remember that freedom of expression comes with responsibilities. We must use all these communication platforms of responsibly. We condemn anyone who uses social media to communicate offensively, insult others and communicate in an indecent manner. There are laws that guide us on communication, for example, the Misuse of Personal Information Act. computers which provides for offenses such as cyber-harassment and offensive communication Lately we see a lot of people announcing the death of other people through social media and yet our culture, tradition and philosophy as Ugandans is that when someone is sick, we should pray for that person,” he added.
Ms Dorothy Mukasa, digital rights campaigner for Unwanted Witness Uganda, says online rights do indeed come with responsibilities, but adds that freedom of expression should not be interpreted to mean that government officials only hear what they want to listen to, because democracy calls for divergent points of view.
Ms. Mukasa also observes that in Uganda, spaces for dialogue and mutual communication between government and locals have been closed, making interaction difficult. She explains that when the flow of information between government and the public is not fluid, it creates a chasm that leaves room for speculation.
“You remember when the president was taken out of the country for treatment, there was no information. He is a civil servant for heaven’s sake, and Ugandans have a right to know what is going on with officials Getting sick is normal, everyone gets sick but we need information coming in, instant communication to avoid speculation Failure to provide information breeds the misinformation people share on social networks where people can freely give their news, ”she argues.
However, Minister Baryomunsi says the government’s failure or delay in sharing certain information does not justify speculation and the declaration of dead.
He called the act bad manners that people should stop. Baryomunsi, however, agreed that there was a need for the government to quickly provide information to the public.
Recently, novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was arrested and charged with offensive communication after allegedly posting messages on his social media platform that allegedly offended President Museveni and his son, Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
Several Ugandans, including human rights activists and lawyers, have in the past been arrested and prosecuted under the law.