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Uganda President Challenges Free Speech on Social Media


Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni prepares to deliver his state of the nation address in the capital Kampala, June 4, 2015.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni prepares to deliver his state of the nation address in the capital Kampala, June 4, 2015.

In Uganda, a hateful message spread over the popular messaging platform Whatsapp has prompted debate over policing social media. President Yoweri Museveni has called for the creators of the message to be arrested, but some are saying prosecution could set a dangerous precedent.

When a hateful audio message spread over Whatsapp, ridiculing the Bahima people of western Uganda, it sparked anger from President Yoweri Museveni.

In response to the audio, Museveni released a nearly 15 minute video calling for the arrest of those who created the message. Directly addressing the perpetrators behind the audio, he calls them fools and enemies looking to divide the nation.

Yet the President's video has caused its own mixed reaction. The language Museveni speaks in the video is Runyankole, spoken in southwestern Uganda. This left many wondering why an anti-tribalism message would be delivered in a language specific to his particular tribe. Some also balked at President Museveni's suggestion that anyone who shared the Whatsapp message was complicit in ethnic hate.

But many Ugandans support a clamp down on ethnic hate. Popular TV panelist Collin Asiimwe said tribal division in Uganda is still strong, and cannot be allowed to spiral. “Because of what happened in the region, if you see what happened in South Sudan, because that was one ethnicity rising up against one another,” he said. “There was Kenya, there was Burundi, and then Rwanda, so it is so sensitive. It is so sensitive. And not even just the civilian population like you and me, even the security services and the government. The last time it tried to happen was with Kony and northern Uganda ... So there is so much to worry about.”

Ugandan law bans the promotion of sectarian hate. Although there has never been a conviction for this crime, because of vague wording the law remains contentious. Some suggest it has been used primarily against journalists and opposition candidates.

A lawyer who has worked on online media laws, Peter Magelah, said the law on sectarian hate is applicable in this case, but he said applying the law to social media could be a problem.

“What I find as a challenge is really not what the law said, the challenge is how to enforce what the law said. How to identify the originator is a very difficult thing. Once you identify the originator, how to choose who to sue, because publication would mean anyone who shared, anyone who posted on his or her Facebook, anyone who possibly 'liked', said Magelah. “It becomes so many people who got into that. The problem we have had in this country is many times there is some sort of selective justice, selective criminal justice. So it is likely if there is a political opponent doing that the law will catch up with him.”

Although the Whatsapp audio in question was clearly aimed at demeaning the Bahima, mitigating hate speech and freedom of expression in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election could prove to be a delicate balance between protecting the nation's unity and clamping down on social media

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