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Uganda's Free Speech Advocates Call For Release of Comedians in Custody

Bizonto comedy group (Youtube screen grab)

Uganda's free speech advocates are calling for the release of a comedy group arrested last week on accusations of promoting sectarianism. Members of the group known as Bizonto were arrested after performing a skit that criticized government leaders.

Artists on social media are using the hashtag “Free my talent” as they call on the government to free the four-person group called Bizonto.

The comedians, still in police custody since their arrest Friday, have yet to be charged, but police say they are investigating the issue as a case of sectarianism.

In their skit, the comedians make fun of long-time President Yoweri Museveni and other leaders.

“Tell the children that Yoweri Kaguta Museveni is their president. And they should pray for him. He came to power, in 1986. He’s ruled the country for 35 years, and he still rules. So, they should pray for him, because he is the leader. Tell the children that General Elly Tumwine, is the head of security. It’s a very important position. Because of that, they should pray for him...”

Nicholas Opio, director of Chapter Four, a human rights non-government organization, said freedom of expression exists to protect speech that makes people uncomfortable.

He said to this effect, Ugandans should ridicule their leaders and in so doing discuss serious issues of governance that affect the country.

“Artistic expressions are made to lampoon leaders as a way of expressing one’s view. And I think it’s protected speech. Instead of arresting them, I think we must ask the question of whether they raise a serious issue through their skits. And we must have an honest discussion about equity, about the sharing of the national cake in this country,” said Opio.

The group was arrested at a local radio station. Ofwono Opondo, a government spokesperson, blames the media, questioning why a news organization would start sectarian tendencies as the country moves into an election cycle.

“The government is not going to sit by and watch people attempting to break the unity we have fought so hard to build - the social community harmony we have fought so hard to build over the last 34 years,” said Opondo.

The government early this year set up new proposals that seek to vet new songs, videos and film scripts prior to their release. The proposals also demand that musicians, producers, promoters, filmmakers and all other artists register with the government and obtain a license that can be revoked for a range of violations.

Artists are taking to social media to urge people to speak up. They include singer Robert Kyagulanyi, who is popularly known as Bobi Wine. He is running for president as the candidate from the National Unity Platform.

“I am reminding all of us to rise up now and assert our voices and defend what is rightfully ours. Because freedom of expression is a right. And remember that no creative, no artist is safe. We are all under attack,” said Kyagulanyi.

Police say they have in their possession dozens of videos that show the detained artists promoting sectarianism.