Uganda

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The Uganda Flag

By Audrey Cole

Uganda, located in Sub-Saharan Africa, is no stranger to restricting citizens’ speech and press. Reported by Freedom House to have only partly free speech and press, Uganda recently has been experiencing extreme violence towards journalists and thereby severely limiting their freedom of press.

Historical Background:
Uganda, known for its difficulties in the achievement of international standards of human rights for its citizens, is a landlocked country in East Africa. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Uganda has been among the rare HIV success stories. Infection rates fell to 6.4% in the 2000s, causing the life expectancy of citizens to increase. Uganda is a multiparty presidential republic, under the controversial presidency of Yoweri Museveni. The president is head of both state and government, which contains executive and legislative branches, and all citizens over the age of 18 are allowed to vote in elections.

Free Speech:
Free speech, which is constitutionally guaranteed by Uganda’s constitution: “(1) Every person shall have the right to- (a) freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media,” has not always been put into practice. While reforms in the early 1990s helped Uganda to develop a vibrant free media that included over two dozen newspapers and radio and television stations, which frequently criticize the government4, speech is still not entirely free. Sedition legislation that has been used to prosecute dozens of journalists and politicians for speaking or writing anything that incites hatred against the president, government, or judiciary of Uganda has severely limited citizens’ freedom of speech and only has been overturned as recently as 2010

The Uganda Communications Commission attempted to block access to social networks in 2011 when several cities held protests against food and gasoline price hikes. UCC executive director, Godfrey Mutabazi told Reporters Without Borders that he was willing to cut off access to social networks if it had to be done to protect the public. “The freedom to live is more important than the freedom to express oneself,” said Mutabazi. In 2005, a privately owned radio station called KFM was temporarily closed for allowing speculation about the plane crash of Sudanese vice president, John Garang, who was an ally of Uganda’s president, Museveni. “Any newspaper that plays around with regional security, I will not tolerate it. I will close it,” said Museveni. The radio presenter, Andrew Mwenda, was arrested for sedition in regards to comments he made in regards to the crash on KFM.

On August 6, 2013, the Ugandan Parliament passed the Public Order Management Bill, “which criminalizes public meetings and human rights activities. Under the law, anyone seeking to hold a meeting, public rally and demonstration must now, under Clauses 7 and 8, first obtain police permission.” The leader of the opposition to the bill in Parliament, Nandala Mafabi, declared that the bill was only good for dictators and was not suited for a democratic country, due to the severe infringement of fundamental rights and freedoms. The police force has since violently dispersed peaceful demonstrations and assemblies several times, leaving protestors arrested or charged in court. In one particular instance, on May 28, 2013, police became physically violent with a crowd of journalists and activists who had camped outside the Monitor Publications Limited, which had been taken over by the police, despite the fact that a court order was issued for the police to vacate the building. The activists were protesting outside of MPL in the effort to show solidarity and demand that the government re-open several media outlets that were shut down by security forces who were searching for a controversial letter about an alleged presidential succession plot, which adds to the idea of the Ugandan government putting intense strains on the media and critical reporting.

Free Press:
In regards to free speech and free press, Uganda’s biggest issue lies within that of free press. Uganda’s history with the press is tragic at best, with intimidation and violence towards journalists costing many lives. Journalists are regularly attacked as a means of suppressing free expression. In 2011, President Museveni sent a letter to the national media, accusing journalists of encouraging protests and declared that they deserved to be treated like enemies. Museveni, just one week before, announced a constitutional amendment that threatened journalists who covered protests. Many believe that the letter and amendment were designed to justify brutal police violence against the media.

During the 2011 elections in Uganda (in which Museveni was the incumbent), attacks on journalists skyrocketed and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 17 journalists faced short-term detentions, 41 were attacked while covering various things like the election campaign and protests, 25 were attacked by state agents, 10 were held without charge, and 89% of all media was dedicated to Museveni’s election coverage. Since 2011, the violence hasn’t subsided. In March of 2014, a journalist was attacked and subsequently died after refusing to delete a photograph he had taken of a boat cruise on Lake Victoria, at the request of a citizen who believed she was in the photo.11 Journalism as a profession, has turned into a dangerous profession in Uganda, one in which journalists are at risk for torture and unlawful arrest. As a result, the climate of fear means that many Ugandans no longer bother discussing politics in the open.

Critical Comparison:

In comparison to the United States, Uganda lags far behind in matters of speech and press. The United States has the media as a fourth power, keeping the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government in check by reporting on corruption, scandal, etc. However, in Uganda, all it takes is criticism of the president or other officials to be punished. Journalists and reporters are also not under the same danger of losing their lives in the United States. As a result, there is an open forum in the U.S. about politics and other things involving the nation, which allows growth and development of ideas, as well as keeping the powers of those in charge in check.

The United States Supreme Court has for many years fought to keep the First Amendment one of truly free speech and press. In cases like Cohen v. California, where a department store worker expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War by wearing a jacket with the words, “Fuck the draft. Stop the war,” written on it. While in the United States, Cohen’s freedom of expression was decidedly protected, if a similar situation happened in Uganda with a citizen expressing opposition to something the government supported (like the draft, in this case), the citizen would almost certainly not be similarly protected. In Pennekamp v. Florida, the publisher and associate editor of the Miami Herald published two editorials and a cartoon “criticizing certain actions previously taken by a Florida trial court of general jurisdiction in certain non-jury proceedings as being too favorable to criminals and gambling establishments.” The publisher and associate editor had charges pressed against them and the United States Supreme Court declared that the publications were legitimate criticisms and fall within the protection of the first amendment. In Uganda, criticisms such as those in the Pennekamp trial directed at government officials would not be tolerated. While the United States has the Supreme Court actively working to defend the first amendment, places like Uganda unfortunately have their government actively working to limit free speech and free press of its citizens.

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