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Uganda

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Since presidential elections took place in Uganda in February 2016, there has been a steady and worrying erosion of fundamental rights affecting civic space. Attacks against journalists, which rose alarmingly during the election period, have continued, and civil society and media organisations have experienced break-ins which have yet to be thoroughly and transparently investigated.

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Freedom of Association

Article 29 of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda protects the right to freedom of association “which shall include the freedom to form and join associations including trade unions and political and other civic organisations.”[1] Article 29(1) also enshrines freedom of assembly, association and expression.

NGOs in Uganda have experienced a series of office break-ins without any conclusive investigations by the Uganda Police Force (UPF), or the apprehension of any suspects. On 2 February 2017, the offices of Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET), a leading legal aid service provider for indigenous people, were broken into.[2] Two laptops, four camcorders, money, and a safe were taken. On 2 April 2017, the offices of the Observer newspaper were broken into by unknown assailants and 16 computers, some containing sensitive information, were stolen.[3] In total, nearly 30 NGO and media offices were burgled over the last four years. None of these break-ins have been conclusively investigated by the police, despite ample evidence such as CCTV footage of the perpetrators being provided in some cases.

Political and pro-democracy activists continue to face restrictions on their rights to peacefully assemble over the last six months. Following the February 2016 presidential election, opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye continues to be limited in his movements. On 1 December 2016, as Dr. Besigye and other political leaders planned to hold prayers for victims of violent clashes between the military and royal guards in Kasese, police detained the opposition leader without charge.[4] On 13 December 2016, he was again arrested while travelling to Jinja to attend court proceedings of King Mumbere, who was arrested following clashes in Kasese.[5] The police stated that it had intelligence that he was likely to cause unrest.

On 13 November 2016, the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Uganda) had planned a peaceful assembly to protest the continued abuse of labour rights of workers on flower farms under Uganda Horticulture Industrial Service Providers and Allied Workers Union (UHISPAU).[6] The state and National Organisation of Trade Unions (NOTU) issued threats and intimidation against FIDA-Uganda, alleging the protest was sabotaging government programs and interfering with the mandate of government.

Freedom of Expression

Article 29 (10) of the Constitution of Uganda states that “every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression which shall include freedom of the press and other media.”[7] Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides for the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) further holds that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.[8]

The ICCPR further recognises that the exercise of these provided rights carry special duties and responsibilities which may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, however these will only be such as are provided by law and are necessary.  The legal regime in Uganda falls short of the justifying restrictions it imposes on the right to freedom of expression. Uganda has a number of laws and policies that criminalise freedom of expression, and since November 2016, a number of journalists have faced criminal charges in relation to their work.

On 11 November 2016, police summoned journalist Mabonga Darlington Kitts over allegations of criminal defamation after having published a story implicating a prominent pastor in an extra-marital relationship following a filed suit requesting child maintenance.[9]

On 28 November 2016, Joy Doreen Biira, a Ugandan journalist working with KTN Television in Kenya, was arrested by security officers and detained for nearly 24 hours while visiting her home in Kasese for a wedding. She was later charged with “abetting terrorism,”[10] following accusations by the authorities in Rwenzururu sub-region that she had taken photographs of the fighting between military forces and royal guards, when authorities arrested the traditional King of the Rwenzururu Kingdom.

On 11 December 2016, Jomeo Richard Komakech, a field officer working with Forum For Women In Democracy in Gulu reported various threats from local leaders after he spoke out on irregularities during the post-2016 election analysis. Komakech hosts talk shows in Gulu where he aims to hold political leaders accountable, and runs an online blog. He claims that he has since received death threats and intimidation from the Gulu Resident District Commissioner.

On 4 April 2017, NTV reporter Gertrude Uwitware received threats through her Facebook page after posting a blog[11] in support of a political activist Stella Nyanzi.[12] On 8 April, she was abducted off the streets of Kampala by unknown assailants and assaulted.[13] This climate of intimidation has led to fear and self-censorship within the journalistic community.[14] Local human rights organisations also report a systematic rise in cyber-attacks targeting HRDs since the 2016 presidential election.

Besides these cases, attempts are being made to enact new laws that further criminalise or threaten to curtail freedom of expression. The ICT Minister proposed to amend Section 93(1) of the Uganda Communications Amendment Bill with the intention to remove the involvement of Parliament in the approval of regulations on the media and communication industry in the country. The Bill was passed by Parliament on 6 April 2017 and poses a serious threat to freedom of expression and the media in particular, as the amendment takes away the role of Parliament in overseeing and checking the powers of the Executive. [15] The bill has come at a time when media is facing serious challenges and threats from both State and non-State actors.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Although a constitutionally protected right, the authorities have violently supressed peaceful demonstrations and police have routinely arrested protesters. The Public Order Management Law (POMA), passed in 2013, contains unjustifiable restrictions on the right to assemble peacefully. For example, the legislation grants the police discretionary powers to prohibit public meetings if they are not deemed to be in the “public interest.” Under that mandate, the police have disrupted many public assemblies organised by opposition political parties and student movements, arresting the organisers in the process. POMA also gives enforcement agencies power to use broad force to disperse assemblies.

On 3 May 2017, as Uganda joined the rest of the world to commemorate World Press Freedom Day through different activities; some journalists were arrested by the police and kept in cells for trying to organise parallel activities to those of their association, the Uganda Journalists Association (UJA). The arrested journalists include Phillip Onyango, Bukenya Ronald, Mukisa Daniel, Kabuye Ronald, Nakabale Issa, Atusingwize Johan, and Issa Kigongo, UJA Deputy Secretary who had been arrested the previous day at the Central Police Station and later released. They were arrested in the capital Kampala as they marched to their intended venue for the day’s celebrations.


 

[1] Constitution of Uganda, 1995, http://www.statehouse.go.ug/sites/default/files/attachments/Constitution_1995.pdf, Accessed 29 March 2017.

[2] Legal Aid Service Providers Network, “Statement on the break-in of LASPNET premises”, 2 February 2017, http://www.laspnet.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=445:statement-on-the-break-in-of-laspnet-premises&catid=89&Itemid=435, Accessed 27 April 2017.

[3] NTV Uganda, “Offices of Observer newspaper broken into, 16 computers stolen”, 2 April 2017, http://ntv.co.ug/news/local/01/apr/2017/offices-observer-newspaper-broken-16-computers-stolen-16834#sthash.ME57MxSE.BKojUU3x.dpbs, Accessed 27 April 2017.

[4] The Ugandan, “Kizza Besigye arrested”, 2 December 2016, http://theugandan.com.ug/kizza-besigye-arrested-photos/, Accessed 22 March 2017.

[5] The Ugandan, “Besigye arrested after storming Mumbere court hearing”, 13 December 2016, http://theugandan.com.ug/besigye-arrested-storming-mumbere-court-hearing/, Accessed 27 April 2017.

[6] Stephen Otage, The Monitor, “NOTU, FIDA clash over poisoned flower farm workers”, http://mobile.monitor.co.ug/News/NOTU-FIDA-clash-poisoned-flower-workers/2466686-3451346-format-xhtml-150ybn5/index.html, Accessed 27 April 2017.

[7] Constitution of Uganda, 1995, http://www.statehouse.go.ug/sites/default/files/attachments/Constitution_1995.pdf, Accessed 29 March 2017.

[8] “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/pdf/ccpr.pdf, Accessed 27 April 2017.

[9] Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda, “Police summons journalist over allegations of criminal defamation”, 10 November 2016, https://hrnjuganda.org/?p=3020, Accessed 27 April 2017.

[10] Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda, “Journalist charged with abeting [sic] terrorism for taking photographs of soldiers”, 29 November 2016, https://hrnjuganda.org/?p=3075, Accessed 27 April 2017.

[11] Gertrude Uwitware, “Stella Nyanzi only did what we have feared to do”, 2 April 2017, https://trudiz.wordpress.com/, Accessed 27 April 2017.

[12] The Observer, “Uganda: How Dr Stella Nyanzi Got Janet Museveni Talking”, 7 April 2017, http://allafrica.com/stories/201704070502.html, Accessed 27 April 2017.

[13] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Ugandan journalist abducted, assaulted”, 13 April 2017,  https://cpj.org/2017/04/ugandan-journalist-abducted-assaulted.php, Accessed 4 May 2017.

[14] Uwanted Witness, “Journalist receives death threats for supporting Nyanzi’s critical views”, 6 April 2017, https://unwantedwitness.or.ug/journalist-receives-death-threats-for-supporting-nyanzis-critical-views/, Accessed 27 April 2017.

[15] Uganda Today, “Parliament Passes Uganda Communications Amendment Bill, Gives More Powers to ICT Minister”, 7 April 2017, http://www.theugandatoday.com/news/2017/04/parliament-passes-uganda-communications-amendment-bill-gives-more-powers-to-ict-minister/ Accessed on 5 May 2017

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