The Regulation of Interception of Communications Act, 2010, a Time Bomb?

On 27th March 2009, the Regulation of Interception of Communications Bill, 2007 was introduced in Parliament. The Bill provided for the lawful interception and monitoring of certain communications in the course of their transmission through a telecommunication, postal or any other related service or system in Uganda.

Among other things, the Bill provided the Minister for Security the authority to issue warrants for interception of any communication if he has reasonable ground to believe; a felony has been or is being or will probably be committed;  the gathering of information concerning an actual threat to national security or to any national economic interest is necessary; the gathering of information concerning a potential threat to public safety, national security, or any national economic interest is necessary; or there is a threat to the national interest involving the State’s international relations or obligation.

The Bill raised concerns from human rights activists who protested against the invasion of privacy and interference with people’s rights and freedoms. The opposition party politicians also opposed the Bill arguing that it was prone to misuse and would be used to witch hunt individuals.

The Regulation of Interception of Communications (RIC) Act, 2010 was passed on its First reading and was assented to by the President on the 5th August 2010 and became law shortly thereafter.

The Act provides that authorized persons including the Chief of Defence Forces, Director General of the External Security, Director General of the Internal Security Organisation, and Inspector General of Police or their nominees can make an application for the lawful interception of any communication to a designated judge.

Despite the changes incorporated in the Act, including giving the power to grant applications to a judge instead of the Minister, the Act is still criticized for lacking checks and balances.  Amnesty International expressed concerns about the Act and stated that it “lacks adequate safeguards to ensure respect and protection of human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy, that may be threatened in the course of its implementation.”

The RIC is not unique to Uganda and many countries including but not limited to South Africa, USA, UK, Canada have similar legislation commonly referred to as phone tapping laws.

However it must be acknowledged that the Ugandan Government has never needed the excuse of a law to tap phone conversations. In 2003 the President of Uganda, His Ex. Yoweri Museveni, admitted that he had listened to a phone conversation between Lord’s Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony and then Lira Municipality MP Cecilia Ogwal. However when she threatened to sue the President, Museveni’s then legal assistant Mike Chibita challenged her to prove that the President had not been tapping Kony instead.

Neither have the governments worldwide followed the limits set by their law in tapping people’s communication. In 2010, the world was scandalized by the WikiLeaks published U.S. military and diplomatic documents, several of which revealed the extent of violation of privacy of heads of state and ordinary individuals not spared. The founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange has since paid a high price of living inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London as he fears subsequent extradition to the United States to face charges over the diplomatic cables case.

Edward Snowden cannot go unmentioned in an article regarding interception of communication. In June 2013, Edward Snowden, a former defence contractor leaked to the media details of extensive internet and phone surveillance by American intelligence. It was revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency tracks cell phone calls and monitor the e-mail and Internet traffic of virtually all Americans. Edward Snowden has since been granted temporary asylum in Russia but was charged in the USA with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence.

Currently, in our home Country Uganda, the media is awash with stories about the twisted fate of the Prime Minister of Uganda, Hon. Amama Mbabazi. It has been reported that the Prime Minister was temporarily relieved of his duties as Security General of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), the ruling party. Reports in the media indicate that trouble stemmed from the Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi’s perceived bid to stand for Presidential elections in 2016. It is alleged that during NRM parliamentary caucus held on 3rd March 2014 at the State House, President Museveni presented audio recordings and transcripts to prove that his Prime Minister has been mobilizing politically against him. The alleged audio recordings and transcripts compiled by Intelligence operatives were played before the NRM members and in the same, the Premier was pinned for mobilising supporters in different parts of the country to strategise for his presidency come 2016. Allegedly, in the recording Jacqueline Mbabazi, the Premier’s wife states that Museveni is aged, out of ideas and is no longer in control of the country.  She also points out that Amama Mbabazi was treated unfairly in the Kyankwanzi retreat.

The NRM Members of Parliament consequently passed a resolution ordering the Prime Minister and NRM Secretary General Amama Mbabazi, his wife Jacqueline Mbabazi and her sister, the former Agriculture Minister Hope Mwesigye to appear before the NRM party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) to be disciplined.

It must be remembered that Hon. Amama Mbabazi, then Minister of Security was the sponsor of the Regulation of Interception of Communications Bill, 2007. While defending the Bill in Parliament, he explained that lawful interception is the legally sanctioned official access to private communication and is a well-tested method of fighting crime worldwide. The hunter has now become the hunted and a victim of the time bomb of the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act, 2010.

The ongoing storm goes to show that much as the law can be good for tracing criminals, its reverse use can invade the most sacred of places and violate the most intimate of relationships. Governments should have respect for people’s privacy and their right to express themselves. Evidence should be gathered in the right channels and using strictly lawful means otherwise you risk setting off the public panic button.  Such invasive actions invoke memories of the state of fear, suspicion and paranoia created by the modus operandi of the State Research Bureau of the former President Idi Amin.


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