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Human rights activists fear for 2021 elections

Ugandan journalists protest against police brutality recently. INDEPENDENT PHOTO/ALFRED OCHWO

They say government failure to account for past abuses not a good sign

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | The Ugandan government’s continued failure to account for past human rights abuses does not bode well for the 2021 general election, Human Rights Watch said in its recent global annual review of human rights.

Tales of torture in so-called safe houses run by state security agencies, arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics and a crackdown on public dissent and minority sexual orientation groups were among several human rights abuses registered last year.

Human Rights Watch however said in its brief on Uganda, that the violation of freedom of association, assembly, and expression showed the most worrisome trend in the country ahead of the country’s fourth consecutive general election under multi-party democracy.

The New York-based organization which has been tracking global human rights practices and trends over the last 30 years noted in its 652-page report that authorities in Uganda did not only introduce new regulations restricting online activities but also stifled independent media and arbitrarily detained and prosecuted outspoken critics of government.

Stifling independent media

Last year, the government introduced new regulations requiring online operators to apply for permission to host blogs and websites or risk being shut down. The government also attempted to censor traditional media outlets.

In April, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), Uganda’s communications regulator, ordered the immediate suspension of 39 producers, heads of programming and heads of news at six television stations including; NBS TV, BBS TV, NTV, Bukedde TV, Kingdom TV and Salt TV.

UCC also ordered similar action to be taken at seven radio stations (Akaboozi, Beat FM, Capital FM, Pearl FM, Sapientia FM and Radio Simba).

In the letters sent to the affected media houses by the UCC boss, Godfrey Mutabazi, the communications regulator said UCC had observed “misrepresentation of information, views, facts and events in a manner likely to mislead or cause alarm to the public during live broadcasts and main news bulletins.”

UCC also accused the media houses of airing programmes that have “extremist or anarchic messages” including incitement of violence for political and/or other purposes and inciting the public against other members of the public based on their political, religious, cultural and tribal affiliations which are likely to create public insecurity or violence.

UCC said the accused media houses broadcast unbalanced, sensational news and gave prominence to specific individuals and/or group of people, something Mutabazi said is in breach of minimum broadcasting standards. Three radio stations in Kabale, Jinja, and Mubende were taken off air for hosting prominent opposition leader Kizza Besigye.

The European Union Delegation in Uganda, the heads of mission of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and UK alongside other heads of mission from Iceland, Japan, Norway, South Korea and the United States issued a joint statement regarding freedom of expression and assembly in Uganda, and particularly  cited UCC’s April 30, 2019, decision to suspend senior staff of 13 radio and television stations on allegations of breaching minimum broadcasting standards.

Reining-in government critics

Next on the list of those harassed by security agencies were opposition politicians and activists with Dr. Kizza Besigye and Kyadondo East MP Robert Sentamu Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine taking in most of the heat and tear gas.

In April, last year, for example, security officers arrested and charged Bobi Wine, who also heads the People Power political group for “disobedience of statutory duty” having led a protest in July, 2018, against a social media tax that the government had imposed. He was arrested on his way to address a press conference on issues of “police brutality, injustice and abuse of authority.”

Four months later, in August, Kyagulanyi faced additional charges for inciting violence and with intent to “alarm, annoy or ridicule” the president, stemming from 2018 when Kyagulanyi and 33 other people were arrested and charged with treason on allegations that they threw stones at the president’s convoy during an election campaign rally in the north-western Ugandan town of Arua.

In July, Joseph Kabuleta, a journalist-turned pastor and government critic was picked up from a city restaurant, bundled into an unregistered police vehicle and taken to an unknown place. Police later said Kabuleta was arrested because of his Facebook posts describing President Yoweri Museveni as “a Gambler, Thief and Liar.”

A month later, in August, court in Kampala convicted and sentenced academic and activist, Stella Nyanzi, to 18 months’ imprisonment for “cyber harassment” under the Computer Misuse Act for a poem she published on her Facebook page in 2018 criticising President Museveni. The court ruled that the poem violated prohibitions on “obscene, lewd, lascivious or indecent” content.

Nyanzi told court on Aug.01 that she had offended President Yoweri Museveni because he too had offended Ugandans for 30-plus years. “We are tired of a dictatorship,” she said.

Human rights advocates were not amused by the court’s decision. Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s director for East Africa found the judgment outrageous noting that: “The verdict flies in the face of Uganda’s obligations to uphold the right to freedom of expression and demonstrates the depths of the government’s intolerance of criticism.”

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