Government security agencies will start tapping phones freely should the Bill seeking to legalise interception of information get approval from Parliament. The Regulation of Interception of Communication Bill 2007, which has passed the Cabinet, was tabled before the NRM caucus on Monday by Security Minister Amama Mbabazi.

It seeks to "make provision for lawful interception and monitoring of certain communications in the course of their transmission through telecommunication, postal or any other related service or system in Uganda".

The Bill, which also seeks to legalise interception and monitoring of postal letters and payment of money from one place to another, is intended to suppress terrorism in Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni, who chaired the caucus meeting, advised the MPs to study the Bill before discussing it in the next meeting to take place in the first week of June.

It is believed security agencies illegally tap phones of prominent opposition politicians. Reliable sources who attended the meeting said Museveni asked the MPs to support the Bill to fight terrorism.

He reportedly confirmed that the agencies have been tapping certain phone communications illegally and said the Bill was good because it would protect the country from criminals like Kony and others.

In 2003 the President indicated that he had listened to a phone conversation between LRA chief Joseph Kony and then Lira Municipality MP Cecilia Ogwal. But 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.

The Bill mandates service providers to ensure postal or telecommunications systems are technically capable of supporting lawful interception at all times. It also mandates them to install hardware and software facilities and devices to enable interception of communications and capable of rendering 24-hour monitoring facilities.

Service providers are also obliged to safeguard the identities of monitoring agents and ensure the confidentiality of investigations. Mbabazi reportedly said the Bill would reinforce the provisions of the Interception of Communications and Surveillance of the Anti Terrorism Act 2002, whose main focus is suppression of terrorism.

He said MPs would decide the category of people whose phones should be tapped. Parliament would also put into consideration the protection of people's privacy. According to the Bill, the State would compensate the service providers and protected information key holders with reasonable tariffs for the nature of work done.

The Bill states that people authorised to apply for warrant of interception of communication will be chief of defence forces, director of Eso and Iso, Inspector general of police and commissioner general of prisons.

It seeks to provide for the establishment of a communications monitoring centre, which would be exempted from any kind of licence and taxes. It states that the Security Minister shall equip, operate and maintain the monitoring centre.

The Bill states that the ministries of Defence, Internal Affairs and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) would be responsible for the monitoring system. State Minister ICT Alintuma Nsambu told Daily Monitor on phone that phone-tapping is done all over the world for security purposes.

The Managing Director Celtel Uganda Yesse Oenga said such Bills are not strange in governments worldwide. A security source said government acquired software worth millions of dollars, which it uses to tap phones of suspected terrorist collaborators. "In a bid to cut the costs we bought a machine which is now helping us. We only identify a few people because tapping many is costly," the source said.

He said the numbers are entered in the machine and when a suspect calls, the machine displays the number and it automatically taps the conversation. The source said they have been working with service providers to tap phones.

He said if a phone is being tapped, it can only be detected if a suspect knows how phone-tapping is done. When security agencies identify the targeted people, the phone numbers are tagged and given to a security surveillance officer who feeds the numbers into a machine.

Opposition MPs and NRM rebel MPs are set to oppose the Bill when tabled before Parliament. MPs Peter Omolo (Soroti), Felex Okot Ogong (Dokolo) and Johnson Malinga (Kapebyeng) vowed to oppose the Bill.

Mr Omolo wondered why the government moves to infringe on people's privacy by listening to conversations between relatives. Mr Johnson Malinga said, "The Constitution provides for privacy. So we shall fight this Bill," he vowed.

However, the Vice Chairperson of the Parliamentary Defence committee Ms Jessica Alupo (Woman, Katakwi) said it is a good Bill that would protect the country from terrorism and arms trafficking.

"Money to finance terrorism has exchanged hands in this country. Corroborators have been freely communicating," she said. James Byandala (Katikamu North) and Robert Kashaija (Youth Western) said they would support it saying any security-cautious country would do it.

The Monitor