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Bill undermines basic Human Rights PDF Print E-mail

By Halima Abdallah and IN reporter

Even before it is debated in parliament, the Interception of Communication Bill 2007, which seeks to give powers to the security minister to intercept communication, has divided the house and drawn reactions from a cross section of the public.

Opposition members of parliament view the bill as a means to know their political secrets as the country comes closer to the 2011 elections. On the other hand, human rights activists have condemned it saying it is an outright abuse of human rights, to freedom of privacy, expression and association as guaranteed in the Constitution.

Mr. Amama Mbabazi, the security Minister, tabled the bill early March. The bill drafted in 2007 surfaced suddenly raising eyebrows as to the motive and the timing, ahead of the 2011 elections. It is before the parliamentary committee on Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

The bill seeks to give the minister court powers where he or she is the sole person to issue warrants for interception of:  emails, telephone conversations, parcels and letters for any person, leaving the courts out. In addition, the bill also provides for the scrutiny of individuals bank transactions and money transfers.

When it comes to pass, it would work side by side by with the Anti-terrorism Act 2002. The intercepted communication according to the Bill would be used as evidence during prosecution.

The Bill puts an obligation on communication service providers to install phone-tapping gargets in their systems; failure to do so would attract five years imprisonment. It is also likely that letters and parcels would be opened to check the contents just like emails would be monitored.

This is not entirely a new move. Previously, Ugandans have complained about the government tapping phones. The only difference this time round, is that although the actions are illegal in the minds of many people, it would have a legal backing, thus legalizing an illegal act.

The Bill seeks to legalize what has been happening already.  “The government has been doing it but we did not have a legal framework to regularize communication interception,” said Edward Baliddawa the chairman of the ICT committee in parliament. 

But it will also set limits on how far the government can go in this exercise and also allows redress in the event of aggrieving someone, said Baliddawa.

Interception of the communications would be done by a communication-monitoring centre as provided for under clause three of the Bill. The minister is the overall controller of the centre but other head of security agencies like Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, Director General Internal Security Organization and External Security Organization, The Inspector General of Police and Commissioner General of Prisons are persons authorized to apply to the minister for a warrant of interception. Also any person who is a competent authority outside Uganda can apply for the warrant.

In defense of the bill, Mbabazi told the legislators that the interception would specifically target communication that is suspected to be involving crime that could be a threat to individuals and national security.

The Bill proponents also defended it arguing that it would not infringe on press freedom nor affect private communication, creating a contradiction since the bill does not expressly say the interception would be restricted to official communications only.

Interestingly, the bill provides that a person whose communications would be intercepted would be informed and such person has 14 days to appeal. But the minister reserves the right to accept the appeal or not. Leaving the question, who guards the guard?

Latest to join the critics of the Bill are the lawyers. Uganda Law Society mid March met the parliamentary committee and strongly opposed the bill. The lawyers argued that the enormous powers given to the minister is subject to abuse since the authorized applicants are political appointees and report to the minister who is also a politician and therefore partisan.

The lawyers’ views are that such powers should be vested with the courts to avoid conflict of interest and suspicions. In other countries like South Africa, and Canada, phone taping is done only after a magistrate’s court has issued a warrant.

“The difference is that what they have been doing was illegal and could not be used as evidence in court. When you legalize it, it can be used against you. And why should those powers be at the discretion of the minister not the courts of law like it is done elsewhere?” said John Bosco Mayiga, coordinator of Uganda Media Development Foundation (UMDF).

Other critics said that if the Bill is passed in its current form, it would hamper businesses, as rivals are likely to get information about their competitors and sabotage them.





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