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Uganda Closes Radio Station For Airing Conspiracy Theories on Sudan Rebel Leader's Death

The Ugandan government shut down a radio station in the capital, Kampala, a day after President Yoweri Museveni vowed to close any media outlet reporting conspiracy theories on the death of Sudan's former rebel leader, John Garang, who died in a July 30 helicopter crash.

Ugandan President Museveni, earlier this week, vowed to shut down any media outlet that indulged in conspiracy theories about John Garang's death. He was riding in the Ugandan president's helicopter when it crashed in southern Sudan. Officials initially said the crash was weather-related, though the investigation continues.

President Museveni said speculation of other causes could enflame tensions between northern and southern Sudanese attempting to implement a fragile peace deal, and threaten regional security.

Uganda's broadcasting council, which oversees the country's media content, singled out a live talk show on Kampala's 93.3 FM station.

On the program, which aired late Wednesday, panelists discussed whether a national holiday was justified for the Ugandan crewmen and soldiers who perished with Mr. Garang. And then the discussion veered toward President Museveni's attempts to quell speculation of foul play in the death of Mr. Garang.

Rumors of sabotage led to riots in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and elsewhere last week, killing at least 130 people.

Mr. Garang represented southern Sudan in a coalition government formed under a peace accord he signed earlier this year to end 21 years of civil war. He had only recently been sworn in as vice president when he died.

In a letter announcing its decision to close the radio station, the Ugandan broadcasting council said the program offended what it called "the minimum broadcasting standards enshrined in Uganda's media act."

Wangathi Mwangi is the editorial director the the Nation Media Group, the East African media conglomerate that owns the station. He questioned the validity of the government's motive in closing the station.

"I wouldn't say it's completely valid," he said. "I mean, it would tend to assume that one is dealing with a public and a mass of readers who are not intelligent at all and cannot tell the truth from fiction, or speculation from real fact."

Last week, President Museveni called in a team of international aviation experts to investigate what caused the crash of his Russian-made helicopter.

The crash has been attributed to bad weather, but President Museveni said last week that other external factors could have played a role in the crash.

The helicopter's flight voice recorder was recovered near the crash site last week, but the contents are still being examined.

Mr. Mwangi of the media group says the closure of the radio station signals a larger problem of dwindling press freedoms in Uganda, especially as the country struggles to open up its democratic process to opposition parties in the lead-up to national elections next year.

"I think we are looking at a government that seems to be behaving as though it's under pressure, or under siege," he said. "It's not going to help in terms of expanding democratic space. Considering that the country is going through critical elections next year, this is not the time to start tampering with media space. Because it invites the international spotlight on you."

Meanwhile, in a separate development, Sudanese authorities are grilling President Museveni on his visit to Yei and New Site in southern Sudan, where he traveled for Mr. Garang's funeral without a visa or permits from the Khartoum government.