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Rights Groups Gather in Uganda to Investigate Crackdown on Freedom of Expression

  • Michael Onyiego

With less than six months until Uganda's next presidential elections, international rights groups have gathered in Uganda to highlight the erosion of freedom of expression in the east African nation.

In the wake of the deaths of two journalists over the past month, the International Partnership group for Uganda has completed a three-day mission to investigate growing reports of media and political repression in the east African nation. The group, which consists of seven human rights and freedom of expression organizations, warned on Thursday that recent attacks on free speech and media independence could mar the credibility of the February presidential elections.

Chief among the group's concerns are current and proposed laws which threatened the freedom of the press.

While Uganda's constitution includes provisions to protect journalists and media houses, laws such as the Anti-Terror act and the Electronic Media Act are potential threats to that protection. According to the group, the Electronic Media Act gives the Ugandan Broadcast Council broad authority to shut down media outlets.

Many of the laws have been designed to maintain security in Uganda, but a representative for Washington-based Freedom House, Courtney Radsch, says they have been applied arbitrarily to silence critics.

"The laws appear to be intended to restrict criticism of the government and the ruling party," said Radsch. "They are applied selectively and they are applied without consistent and corroborative explanations. For example last year, four radio stations were closed allegedly for inciting violence. The problem is that they were closed without due process, without following the policies and regulations that are in place."

The stations Radsch was referring to were closed in the wake of September 2009 riots in the capital, Kampala. The riots began when the traditional King of Uganda's largest ethnic group, the Buganda, was barred from entering a district considered to be part of the Buganda kingdom. Of the four radio stations shut down, CBS Radio, owned by the Bugandan King, remains closed.

The group also raised concerns that media ownership created a dangerous conflict of interest for journalists in Uganda. The Ugandan Broadcast council estimates that 10 percent of Ugandan radio stations are owned by politicians. But according to Radsch the mission's research revealed that figure was closer to 70 percent. The International Partnership Group warned that political control of Ugandan media compromised independent journalism and prevented opposition from expressing their views to the public.

The Mission on Thursday urged the Ugandan parliament to protect press freedoms through the implementation of Uganda's Access to Information Act as well as the rejection of the Press and Journalist Amendment Bill. While the proposed law would protect confidential sources of information, the mission said the rest of the bill's provisions would impose "onerous and undue restrictions on press freedom."