Lawyer seeks order forcing Facebook to reveal Ugandan blogger’s identity

Judge says revealing identity of ‘TVO’ risks putting blogger’s life in danger

A High Court judge has said he could not, “in conscience”, order Facebook Ireland to reveal the identity of a blogger who has made clearly defamatory allegations against a Ugandan lawyer.

Mr Justice Donald Binchy said he could not do so because the blogger’s bodily integrity or life might be under threat having read an Amnesty International report on Uganda. He said the Amnesty report – referring to the arrest and charging of people who spoke out against the Ugandan government – seemed to echo some of the concerns put forward by Facebook.

The social media company opposed an application by lawyer Fred Muwema for an order revealing the identity of the blogger who goes under the pseudonym TVO (Tom Voltaire Okwalinga).

TVO posted material on Facebook alleging Mr Muwema had accepted bribes and that a break-in at Mr Muwema’s office had been staged. Mr Muwema denies the claims and sought to sue TVO for defamation. He brought proceedings in Ireland as it is home to Facebook’s headquarters outside the US and Canada.

Mr Justice Binchy last August refused Mr Muwema an injunction requiring Facebook to take down the material but was prepared to make an order relating to disclosure by Facebook of basic subscriber information relating to the identity of TVO.

Fake TVO page

Facebook asked the judge to revisit his decision on revealing his identity after it said it had learned a second, or fake TVO page, had been set up on Facebook.

A former employee of the US Embassy in Uganda was arrested by police on the incorrect presumption he was TVO, Facebook’s lead litigation counsel, Jack Gilbert, said in an affidavit. Facebook was also concerned about a number of international reports, including from the US State department in 2015, about the lack of respect in Uganda for human rights involving unlawful killings and torture of detainees. Nicholas Opiyo, an advocate with the Chapter Four human rights organisation in Uganda, said he defended the man who had been arrested by police who believe he was TVO and he was held for 48 hours at a notorious detention centre in Kampala.

Mr Opiyo believes if the identity of the real TVO is revealed, the latter will be subjected to similar or worse abuse at the hands of security agents.

Mr Justice Binchy said on Thursday his decision was 80 per cent complete but Facebook had behaved very responsibly in bringing the information before the court. While he did not believe TVO’s identity should be revealed, the court would have to make an order in circumstances where Mr Muwema had been defamed and was entitled to a remedy.

Andrew Walker, for Mr Muwema, said his client needed the identity to sue TVO for defamation. The Ugandan judicial system was robust enough to protect TVO who had broken that country’s Computer Misuse Act, he said.

Rossa Fanning SC, for Facebook, said the real TVO, who has 80,000 followers, had set matters up where an order of the court relating to his identity may be ineffective while the “fake TVO” had not.

Facebook found itself in an unusual situation where it felt compelled to ask the judge to revisit his order at its own cost. It was prepared to deal with this matter on the basis both sides pay their own costs of the litigation so far, counsel said.

Mr Justice Binchy said he hopes to finalise his decision soon.