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Sedition judgment victory for all

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Last week, the Constitutional Court declared the sedition law unconstitutional. The judgment marked a major and symbolic watershed in Uganda’s democratisation process. For almost a century, the law of sedition has been used by successive regimes in Uganda to stifle free speech. Although introduced by the colonial state to suppress African demands for independence, post independence governments of Uganda have continually retreated to this law to stifle democratic expression in this country.

Although the main celebrants of the judgment were journalists (because we have born the biggest brunt of this law), the victors included opposition politicians and the people of Uganda generally. The NRM government and President Yoweri Museveni specifically should celebrate too. The sedition law was bad law because it was arbitrary, literally making criticism of government a crime. To remove it from our statute books is therefore an important step in promoting democratic debate.

According to the law of sedition, anyone who publishes information that is likely to cause disaffection, hatred or contempt against the ‘person of the president’ has committed a crime. In Uganda, the president is not born but elected. His mandate is renewed every five years through a competitive national election. Therefore, those who feel an incumbent president has done a poor job should be free to try and spread disaffection, hatred and contempt against him personally. To criminalise such actions is tantamount to saying the president should not be criticised.

The existence of independent courts to adjudicate on citizens’ rights without undue political interference, and the existence of judges with confidence to make a judgment against the state, could only have been possible because of the political environment the NRM government and Museveni have created. The nullification of the law by the courts was a major national news item and was carried on all major news networks across the world. The NRM should have taken this credit by arguing that it has established independent courts that are actively promoting democracy.

Instead, the government has promised to appeal to the Supreme Court, itself a legally legitimate step. But it reflects the NRM in the light as a regime tenaciously clinging onto an anti-democratic colonial relic. Besides, the Supreme Court has almost already pronounced itself on this law in the suit Charles Onyango-Obbo and I won in 2003. The principles of jurisprudence set out in that judgment formed the basis for the judgment in the sedition suit in the Constitutional Court.

The president and his ruling party have consistently argued that they put in place a democratisation process. The cornerstone of this process was the constitution making exercise. Going to court to challenge certain laws that are inconsistent with the constitution promulgated in 1995 is, therefore, a pursuit of the NRM democratisation programme. When the East African Media Institute and I took the sedition matter to court, we were only helping advance the democratisation process ostensibly set in motion by the NRM. Therefore the NRM government should have joined journalists to celebrate the victory.

There is therefore a big gulf between NRM’s rhetoric on promoting democracy in Uganda and the actual politics it plays in trying to retain power. Since it came to office, the NRM has not repealed a single anti-democratic law. On the contrary, it has reinforced many of them. It is currently writing a media regulatory law that a committee of such men as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Idi Amin would even find a tad severe.

Yet overall, the NRM is fighting yesterday’s war. For increasingly, newspapers are dying in Uganda: The combined circulation of New Vision and Daily Monitor has declined by about 20 percent since 1997 in spite of a big boom in education and increasing size of upper and middle classes. This has previously been driven by the spread of radio. However, since Uganda was connected by fiber-optic cable to the ocean, the technological foundation of a free media is consolidating.

First, over half a million Ugandans are visiting the internet daily. By 2015, internet access is going to cost only five percent of its 2005 price. Gordon Moore (Intel’s founding CEO) argued in the 1960s that every two years, the miniaturisation of technology would double the performance at half the price, giving technological innovation a price performance ratio of one to four. From this perspective, an iPad that costs $1500 today will sell for less than $94 in 2014. Increasingly, the computer and the mobile phone handset are converging most especially around information and news.

As I write, Uganda has over 11m mobile phone lines sold. Since many people have more than one line, we can discount three million lines. This leaves eight million Ugandans with a mobile line. Given that the adult population of Uganda is only 13m (out of 32m people), 62 percent of our adult population is hooked onto the mobile phone i.e. modern technology. The ability to send tonnes of data through cyber space in a second combined with the spread of mobile phone usage across the country is rapidly rendering government control of information flow almost impossible. Therefore, the convergence of the computer and mobile phone on one platform, combined with ever declining costs of these gadgets and internet access is driving Uganda deeper into the information technology revolution.

Moreover, across this country, there is an unprecedented boom in education at all levels, most importantly secondary and university education. While Uganda was producing only 2,000 university graduates per year in 1994 (when I joined Makerere), it is producing over 50,000 per year in 2010 and these students are increasingly taking advantage of different technology platforms.

Indeed, the number of young Ugandans already hooked on Facebook and Twitter is growing every night and the debate on blogs is ferocious. Websites and blogs are spreading like wildfire and today constitute the most effective forms of communication by our growing middleclass. Most ‘intellectuals’ in Africa have remained blind to these structural changes taking place before our own eyes. Consequently, opposition movements have not taken full advantage of modern technologies to promote the cause of freedom and liberty. The government has not done better; I only laugh when I see it introducing laws to control the mass media as if we are living in the 1970s.

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