CIVICUS

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Uganda

Live rating: Repressed

Last updated on 16.07.2018 at 14:41

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Activists arrested and MP slain as Ugandans protest insecurity

Activists arrested and MP slain as Ugandans protest insecurity

In Uganda, arbitrary arrests of activists considered to hold dissenting opinions have become commonplace, targeting members of parliament, journalists and even unarmed protesters. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community had their meetings disallowed by authorities, while the government imposed a social media tax which raised concerns on its adverse effects on the freedom of expression.

Association

On the evening of 8th June 2018, a Member of Parliament from the ruling party (the National Resistance Movement, NRM), Ibrahim Abiriga and his bodyguard were shot dead by two unknown assailants riding a motorcycle. It is unclear at the time of writing what prompted the murder, and no suspects have been identified. On 13th June, police arrested MP Betty Nambooze in connection with Abiriga’s murder, alleging that statements she made on social media may have prompted the assassination. She was detained at Naggalama police station but due to illness has been admitted to Kiruddu Referral Hospital where she has been guarded by police officers.

After the removal of a presidential age limit of 75 from the Constitution through an amendment in January 2018, Nambooze had allegedly made inciting remarks, insinuating that MPs who had supported the Bill would be punished by angry members of the public.

Peaceful Assembly

In early May 2018, Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo, shut down a civil society conference addressing the needs of persons living with HIV/AIDS , saying it intended to promote “homosexuality and other dirty things.” On 17th May, the authorities cancelled planned celebrations for the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia organised in a private office, in a move decried by human rights organisations.

The celebrations had been organised by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an umbrella non-governmental organisation based in Kampala, Uganda.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights said:

“We condemn this most recent move by the Ugandan government to impede [Sexual Minorities Uganda] SMUG's work, in violation of the government's international obligations to respect and uphold the rights to freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly. This is the latest in a string of police raids and government shut downs of LGBTI events in Uganda in recent years, and amid a general crackdown on all civil society in the country.”

The LGBTI community in Uganda faces major social and legal challenges. In 2013, the parliament of Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, a piece of legislation which criminalizes acts of homosexuality, categorizing them as offences punishable by law.

Two men were arrested in Kampala, on 4th June after carrying a coffin to the Ugandan Parliament, protesting the lack of police investigation into a string of kidnapped and murdered women. Since February 2018, about 50 cases of kidnapping have been reported to the Ugandan police, a sharp increase from the 24 cases reported in the whole year in 2017. While some of them have been found to be staged cases intended to solicit money from unsuspecting people, most of the legitimate kidnap cases involve women and girls, causing nationwide concern. On 5th June anti-riot police arrested several demonstrators, who were also protesting against the perceived lack of police response to the murders. They were meant to have a meeting with the Inspector General of Police to discuss these issues, but were blocked by anti-riot police from entering the police headquarters in Naguru, Kampala. They were subsequently charged with unlawful assembly and released on bail. In a separate incident, protesters and mourners clashed with police on 10th July as the body of slain MP Ibrahim Abiriga was brought to Arua for funeral services. As tensions mounted, protesters briefly seized the casket and demanded justice and a thorough investigation.

On 12th June 2018, academic, blogger, and vocal government critic Stella Nyanzi was arrested for allegedly inciting violence and chaos. After being denied a scheduled meeting with the Deputy Inspector General of Police, she parked her car outside the Naguru Police Headquarters in Kampala, and played loud music. She had been a prominent activist among those protesting about the failure of police investigations into the unsolved kidnappings and murder of women.

As documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, Stella Nyanzi had previously been charged in March 2017 under the Computer Misuse Act based on her social media statements, including one where she referred to President Yoweri Museveni as “a pair of buttocks”. She denied any wrongdoing and was released on bail on 10th May 2017.

Expression

Four journalists were interrogated on 22nd May after being summoned to the Criminal Investigations Directorate Headquarters in Kibuli, Kampala, in relation to online articles regarding leaked bank transactions of a high-ranking Bank of Uganda official. Andrew Irumba (Spy Uganda), Bob Atwine (Spy Reports), Taddeo Ssenyonyi (Business Focus), and John Njoroge (CEO Magazine) were later released without charge.

HRNJ-Uganda National Coordinator Robert Ssempala stated:

“We are delighted that the journalists have been released without being charged, we however encourage the Police to work closely with journalists and to refrain from stifling the right to free speech and media. Being the mouth piece of society, journalists should be allowed to carry out their duty of informing the public without any threats of harassment or violation of their Constitutional rights” 

Three other journalists who also received summons did not appear, instead sending a letter through their lawyer demanding more time to prepare the necessary documentation.

In a significant blow to both internet freedom and freedom of expression online, on 30th May 2018 Parliament passed the Excise Duty (Amendment) Bill (2018), which places a mandatory daily tax of 200 Ugandan Shillings (roughly US $0.05) on users of popular social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. While this levy may seem small, it is worth noting that as of 2017, 27 percent of Ugandans live below the poverty line, subsisting on US $1.25 a day or less. These new taxes could render social media prohibitively expensive for poor and rural Ugandan citizens who are already disenfranchised from national events and politics. President Museveni pushed for the changes, claiming that social media encourages gossip. The law takes effect on 1st July 2018. However, following public protests, on 11th July, Ugandan authorities stated that they would review their decision to impose this tax.

In early June, security officials banned radio stations from playing a song by popular Northern Ugandan musician Bosmic Otim, describing it as “misleading.” The strongly-worded song, Mac Onywalo Buru (Fire Produces Ash) is heavily critical of prominent politicians and MPs.

Association in Uganda

In January 2016, the president signed the Non-Governmental Organisations Act into law.

In January 2016, the president signed the Non-Governmental Organisations Act into law.Although the final version of the Act does not contain many of the problematic provisions of the draft bill, the legislation still places limits on the independence of organisations and the freedom of association. For instance, the act bars organisations from doing anything that would be deemed as prejudicial to the ‘security of Uganda’ and the ‘interests of Uganda and the dignity of Ugandans’.Some organisations have argued that the inclusion of the vague term ‘dignity’ is aimed at targeting and limiting the work of LGBTI organisations in Uganda that have faced significant challenges in recent years. Organisations and human rights defenders are subject to intimidation and face physical attacks, threats and harassment by state and non-state actors. On several occasions, the premises of human rights organisations have been the targets of suspicious robberies, during which computers and other documents have been stolen.

Peaceful Assembly in Uganda

Although a constitutionally protected right, the authorities have violently supressed peaceful demonstrations and police have routinely arrested protesters, especially in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

Although a constitutionally protected right, the authorities have violently supressed peaceful demonstrations and police have routinely arrested protesters, especially in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election. The Public Order Management Law (POMA), passed in 2013, contains unjustifiable restrictions on the right to assemble peacefully. For example, the legislation grants the police discretionary powers to prohibit public meetings if they are not deemed to be in the ‘public interest’. Under that mandate, the police have disrupted many public assemblies organised by opposition political parties and student movements, arresting the organisers in the process. POMA also gives enforcement agencies power to use broad force to disperse assemblies. On 15 February 2016, police used excessive force to disperse protesters who were calling for the release of opposition candidate Kizza Besigye. As a result, one person was killed and several others were wounded.

Expression in Uganda

Uganda has one of the more vibrant media environments in the region; however, in practice the government restricts the exercise of the right to free expression, using intimidation and attacks against independent journalists and tactics that close spaces for a plural and diverse media.

Uganda has one of the more vibrant media environments in the region; however, in practice the government restricts the exercise of the right to free expression, using intimidation and attacks against independent journalists and tactics that close spaces for a plural and diverse media. The space for journalists to practise unhindered became even more restricted in the run-up to and during elections. For example, the government closed radio stations that granted airtime to opposition candidates, and arrested radio journalist Richard Mungu Jakican while he was conducting an interview regarding the presidential elections. Moreover, on election day, the government ordered the telecommunication providers to shut down all social media platforms due to ‘security concerns’. Criminal defamation legislation is still in place and used to silence critical voices. Although there is an access to information law in Uganda, the Official Secrets Act of 1964 has not been repealed and can be used to limit access to information. Government has also ordered media to dedicate one hour of broadcasting per week to government programmes.