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Uganda Introduces New Laws to Silence Activists, Journalists

Following a spate of violent incidents aimed at silencing journalists – both local and foreign – Uganda passed legislation on August 7 imposing new restrictions on the freedom of expression, assembly and political dissent.

According to the New York-based Freedom House, any group planning to hold a public event has to register with the Ugandan police seven days prior. If not, participants are liable to be arrested and “if they resist, the bill gives police the legal authority to use deadly force against them.” Further, even groups wanting to register could be denied permission by the police for “any reasonable cause.” The legislation also stipulates a gathering of more than three people – private or public – or where politics is discussed could be construed as a protest.
This law comes in the wake of a series of violent incidents that have sought to restrict political dissent. On July 23, US documentary filmmaker Taylor Krauss was arrested by the police while filming an opposition rally. Arrested with him was a leading opposition figure Kizza Besigye. Besigye was released after questioning, but Krauss was detained for three days and deported on July 26.
On June 16, the body of Thomas Pere, a journalist for the state-owned New Vision media group was discovered in a field on the Kampala-Entebbe highway. “It is clear from the injuries to Pere’s body and the way it was found that his death was not accidental, and that in fact he was murdered,” the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) said. “The motive, and whether it was linked to his work, is not yet clear…”
On May 20, two newspapers and two radio stations were raided and ‘occupied’ by the Ugandan police. Monitor Publications Limited (MPL) that publishes the Daily Monitor, KFM-Radio and Ddembe FM that broadcast from MPL’s headquarters, and another daily, Red Pepper, were not allowed to publish or broadcast for 11 days. The police declared the offices areas of a “crime scene.”
RSF said the real reason was that both newspapers had published details of the so-called ‘Muhoozi Project,’ which is an attempt by President Musaveni to install his son as his successor. Both the Daily Monitor and Red Pepper published details of a leaked confidential letter about an assassination attempt of senior officers of the Ugandan military opposing Musaveni.
On May 28, the police used teargas to disperse a peaceful demonstration by journalists protesting the government closing the two media organisations. While dispersing demonstrators, the police used batons to beat up a journalist and confiscate his camera.
On May 30, both media organisations were allowed to reopen after they negotiated terms although the police would continue to be present in their offices. RSF said, “MPL was allowed to reopen its media in return for accepting limits and restrictions on the Daily Monitor‘s editorial operations. Under the agreement, it must ensure that its articles are ‘properly sourced, verified and factual’ and that they do not create ‘tension,’ incite ‘ethnic hatred,’ ‘cause insecurity’ or ‘disturb law and order.'”
Museveni has had a stranglehold over political dissent since he came to power in 1986, which has included stifling the independent media. This he has done by terrorising journalists and directly censoring content of publications and broadcasts.
“The progressive erosion of democratic values in Uganda is both profoundly negative in its implications for Uganda’s development, and a further indictment of a government that no longer even pretends to govern in the interests of its people,” said Chloe Schwenke, vice president for global programs at Freedom House in the organisation’s statement on August 8.

Citizen Journalism and Twitter in Uganda

In the midst of riots and anti-government protests leading up to the 2011 elections in Uganda, the government has continued to clamp down on the press. And as the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, citizen journalists and social media sites are helping to fill the void.

At least four radio stations were recently shut down and news broadcasts have been replaced by sitcoms or kept light, with no mention of the protests. A Ugandan talk show host, Kalundi Serumaga, was also arrested, along with four journalists from Uganda’s largest daily paper.

Internet availability has almost doubled in Uganda since 2007, boosting blogging and micro-blogging activity and opening up more channels for information. BlogSpirit is one site that aggregates blogs from Uganda and can be accessed from around the world. Although daily papers have so far been allowed to continue to print, Ugandans are turning to these sites for immediate updates and reports.

CPJ writer
Rebekah Heacock says she was constantly checking her Twitter account in hopes of hearing from her friends and colleagues in Uganda. One friend wrote: “Okay. We’re like running for our lives.” Another tweeted: “Wow…everyone hurry and turn to [Ugandan television station] NBS for a riveting report on…wait for it…how to play golf.”

You can read Heacock’s full report at CPJ here.