East African Law Society sues Uganda gov’t over internet shutdown

East African Law Society sues Uganda gov’t over internet shutdown
East African Law Society President Oundo (left) and Ugandan lawyer Steven Kalali at the East African Subregistry in Kampala.

Kampala, Uganda | URN | The East African Law Society has sued the Government of Uganda seeking compensation to everyone affected for its alleged illegal actions of shutting down the internet during the January 14th general elections.

The law society that brings together more than 18,000 lawyers from seven East African Countries have sued the Attorney General of Uganda as the first respondent and the Secretary General of East African Community ((EAC) as the second respondent in the case filed on Friday 12, March 2021 evening at the East African Court of Justice Sub registry in Kampala.

The learned friends are suing the Government of Uganda for breaching laws under the Treaty for the establishment of the East African Community (EAC) by unlawfully restricting the citizens and residents access to the internet and to internet based communications platforms.

On his part, the Secretary General for EAC is being sued for alleged failure to fulfil his duty of investigating and submitting his findings in regard to Uganda’s violation of the Treaty in the context of shutting down internet to the East African Community Council for appropriate action.

According to the lawyers, on January 12, 2021, Uganda government through its agency the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) ordered all Internet Service Providers (ISP) within Uganda to block access to internet based social media platforms in addition to the online mobile application stores, Google Play Store and App Store among others.

The government also further ordered the blocking of access to over 100 Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) barring any attempts to circumvent it’s alleged internet censorship.

They add that on January 13, 2021, a day to the general elections, government further shut down internet for five days up to January 18, 2021. As such, the argue that Ugandans and everyone living in Uganda was unable to access any internet platform whatsoever.

In their petition, the lawyers who came to sue led by the East African Law Society President Bernard Oundo also argue that despite the internet restoration, access to social media platform like Facebook remains restricted to date.

The Government of Uganda has to date restricted Facebook usage following its blocking of the supporters of the ruling government who were reportedly violating the global platform’s policies.

The lawyers contend that as result of the said restrictions and shutdown, several businesses such as communication, dissemination of information monitoring of elections, elections, access to electronic payment systems, banking services, online markets, online transport system and access to health services among others were affected.

In the aftermath, the records before court state that the livelihoods of persons whose employment and businesses rely on the internet suffered extensive financial loss and hardships.

To them, the said actions amount to the breach of the principles of good governance, democracy rule of law, public accountability and transparency and social justice which all contravene the EAC Treaty.

According to their President Oundo, the lawyers now want court to issue a permanent and mandatory injunction against Uganda government to immediately lift or withdraw any and all illegitimate restrictions on the internet and compensate all people affected by its alleged unlawful actions.

According to the evidence backing up the case, the Acting Executive Director of UCC Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo first wrote to the Managing Director of Simbanet Limited asking them to suspend the operation of the internet gateways until further notice. This was in her confidential letter dated January 13, 2021.

“In exercise of its functions under section 5(1) and 56 of the UCC Act of 2013, UCC hereby directs you to implement a temporary suspension of the operation of all your internet gateways and associated access points. This suspension should take effect at 7pm this day of 13th January 2021 and continue until otherwise directed,” reads the letter in part.

Read Also: Internet shutdown facilitated free and fair election – Museveni

The East African Law Society brings together lawyers from Burundi Bar Association, the Law Society of Kenya, Rwanda Bar Association, South Sudan Bar Association, Tanganyika Law Society, Uganda Law Society and the Zanzibar Law Society together with their individual members.

Some of its core objectives is the promotion of regional integration of the East African Community, supporting the organs and institutions of the East African Community to realize their mandate, promotion of good governance, human rights and the rule of law in the region and advancing the growth of the legal profession within the region.

This is not the first case of internet shutdown being filed before the East African Court of Justice against the Government of Uganda.

On January 21, 2021, Kampala based lawyer Male Mabirizi sued the government demanding for the compensation of unused data that was lost to the telecommunication companies due to the shutdown.

Mabirizi’s case is already fixed for hearing on June 15, 2021 and the Government of Uganda on March 9, 2021 started defending itself over the matter.