Press Crackdown Fears

Ugandan media freedom under spotlight as new sedition law is considered.

Press Crackdown Fears

Ugandan media freedom under spotlight as new sedition law is considered.

Friday, 18 September, 2009

A recent spate of media arrests has provoked widespread condemnation, and raised fears that President Yoweri Museveni might be planning a clamp-down on press freedom ahead of next year's national election.

Government prosecutors have justified some of the arrests by claiming that the journalists' reports were seditious and undermined the sovereignty of the Ugandan state.

Other journalists have been arrested under the country's defamation laws.

Uganda's sedition statute is being reviewed at the moment, and all prosecutions under this law have been suspended until the review is complete.

Some observers say that the amendments being proposed could make it easier for the authorities to prosecute media professionals, by claiming that their reports seek to destabilise the government.

On August 28, three editors from The Independent, a Ugandan bi-monthly magazine, were arrested and charged with sedition for publishing a critical caricature of Museveni.

The allegedly seditious cartoon suggested that the ruling party – the National Resistance Movement, NRM – was preparing for widespread fraud in the 2011 elections.

The three – Managing Editor Andrew Mwenda, Editor Charles Bichachi, and Assistant News Editor Joseph Were – have since been released on bail, pending a court hearing.

In a separate incident, Moses Akena, who writes for the Daily Monitor, was arrested and charged with criminal defamation, after reporting comments made by Patrick Lumumba, the Gulu deputy speaker, at a press conference.

Lumumba, who was also arrested, had alleged that the deputy resident district commissioner Milton Odongo abused his position by stealing a number of iron sheets from a refugee resettlement programme in northern Uganda. Odongo denies this.

Akena and Lumumba have been released on bail and are awaiting judgement.

On August 21, two daily monitor editors, Daniel Kalinaki and Henry Ocieng, were arrested and charged with forgery after it was alleged that they modified parts of a letter written by President Museveni.

The letter, which was published on July 15, caused a political storm by suggesting that certain senior leadership positions in the Bunyoro region should only go to the native Banyoro tribesmen.

Betty Amongi, a member of parliament for the Apac District, thinks that things could become even tougher for journalists if the proposed amendments to the sedition law go through.

The law defines sedition as “an act of bringing into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the person of the President, the government as by law established or the constitution”.

At the moment, speeches and publications that seek to point out errors made by government are not subject to the law.

But, according to Amongi, this exemption could be removed under the new proposal being discussed.

This would risk undermining journalists' continuing efforts to bring Uganda’s past atrocities to the attention of the world.

Karin Karlekar, managing editor of a global press freedom survey published each year by Freedom House, says that the latest arrests of journalists in Uganda are worrying.

She points out that the position of Uganda – 110th in the survey – is still better than many other war-afflicted African nations. In fact, Uganda is one of only three countries on the continent with a freedom of information law.

However, the past five years have seen the country slipping down the table, and it could slip even further if current media repression goes unchecked, says Karlekar.

“The government is increasingly clamping down on press freedom,” she said. “More and more journalists find themselves facing spurious legal charges. With Museveni trying to shore up his political power base ahead of next year's elections, the government is clearly becoming less tolerant of any criticism.”

Dan Okello, a spokesman for the opposition Uganda Peoples’ Congress, UPC, says that the sedition law damages free and open debate.

“We all know that the media plays a big role in informing, educating and entertaining people from all walks of life,” said Okello. “The law should not even be there. It protects a person who is in power. It imprisons the opposition and the media.”

He warned that, without a freer press, journalists in Uganda have got little contribution to make.

“The media fraternity is being reduced to fighting useless wars, leaving the core issues of development of the country uncovered,” he said.

A Lira-based reporter, speaking on condition of anonymity, complains that journalists are regularly harassed for carrying out their everyday duties.

“We are always intimidated, especially in situations where reporters claim that resources meant for rebuilding war-ravaged provinces of northern Uganda have not reached the beneficiary,” he said.

Not all journalists, though, are so critical of the law.

Joe Erem Oyie, a veteran reporter, says that toughening up the law could help improve the quality of journalism in the country.

“The law should not protect you if you are unprofessional,” Oyie said. “Journalists always hide behind the law whenever they give out false information.”

Innocent Okello, who reports for the Etop community newspaper, agrees.

“Journalists are often less concerned about the consequences of their story once it’s published,” he said. “But, with the new law in the offing, reporters will have to check all the legal implications while handling a story.”

Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained reporter.

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