Ugandan Authorities Jail Facebook User for “Offensive” Comments About President Musveni

Yoweri Musveni at a meeting with the US Department of Defense, 2013. Photo by Glenn Fawcett for DoD, released to public domain.

Yoweri Musveni at a meeting with the US Department of Defense, 2013. Photo by Glenn Fawcett for DoD, released to public domain.

A Ugandan man has been jailed for comments made on the politically-charged Facebook page of Tom Voltaire Okwalinga, aka TVO-Uganda. Robert Shaka, an information security consultant, was arrested on June 8, 2015 after posts appeared on the TVO-Uganda Facebook page suggesting that Ugandan President Yoweri Musveni is sick.

Shaka spent three days in a police custody before he was sent to prison and has been denied bail. But according to multiple sources, including the still-active TVO-Uganda Facebook page, authorities have the wrong man.

A popular Facebook account that posts exclusive messages and news updates casting a decidedly critical eye on the president and his administration, TVO-Uganda identifies as a “public forum dedicated to good governance and democratic dispensation in Uganda.” TVO-Uganda says that his goal is to “encourage free speech.” TVO-Uganda has also released multiple leaked state documents implicating government officials in wrongdoing.

The logo of TVO-Uganda Facebook page. Source: TVO-Uganda cover photo.

The logo of TVO-Uganda Facebook page. Source: TVO-Uganda cover photo.

It now appears that courts and Ugandan police are not completely sure whether Robert Shaka is in fact working under the alias of Tom Okalinga Voltaire/TVO-Uganda, leaving authorities in a potentially embarrassing situation. Local news and gossip site Red Pepper quoted Okwalinga speaking out on the arrest:

The wrongful arrest of Robert Shaka is an attempt to account for all the millions that have been wasted in the futile effort to catch me. Both the police and special forces command have chewed this money in huge amounts.

Statement of offence for Robert Shaka posted on Twitter by Twitter user ‏@Ougasam.

Statement of offence for Robert Shaka posted by Twitter user ‏@Ougasam.

Shaka was charged with disturbing the privacy of President Museveni under the “offensive communication” section of Uganda's Computer Misuse Act. Passed in 2011, the law addresses the “offensive communication” as follows:

Any person who willfully 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 misdemeanor and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty four currency points or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both.

This vaguely-worded measure is consistent with a growing global trend in legislation that attempts to tackle online crime, but often implicates what human rights advocates argue should be protected speech.

Before Shaka's arrest, NTV Uganda filed a report entitled “The “TVO” enigma: Police interrogate cyberspace expert” where Shaka sarcastically advised the government on how to take on social media critics:

It is unclear whether authorities may have targeted Shaka in connection with his television appearance.

Facebook's Global Government Requests transparency report shows that Uganda was one of six African countries that requested user information from the company. Uganda made requests for information on two accounts, both of which were denied by the US-based social media company.

With Uganda's ‘biggest threat’ in prison, the country is safe, Omar Luyimbazi joked:

Timothy Kiwagama claimed Shaka mistreated him when they were in school, but asserted support for his freedom:

Kampala-based news outlet The Observer quoted opposition party parliamentarian Wafula Oguttu speculating on the identity of TVO:

I actually don’t think TVO is an individual. He may have started as an individual but now it has become a medium where everybody is a reporter. TVO can’t be everywhere but you realize that he gets correct information from many places. So, even if they arrested and jailed or killed someone, another TVO will come up.

Oguttu makes an important point: Even if authorities could successfully stifle such critiques on Facebook, this would hardly prevent entities like TVO from posting news and opinions elsewhere. But as one Twitter user noted, the broader objective here may be to instill fear in the minds of curious and critical Ugandans when it comes to writing about the President.

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