HRD killed and journalists attacked by Ugandan People's Defence Forces
On 23rd June 2017, Ugandan police officers and the country's People’s Defence Forces killed human rights defender Irumba Erasmus, coordinator of the Twerwaneho Listeners’ Club (TLC) in Rwebisengo District, and his friend Vide Kanyoro. Security forces claim that the two were trying to buy 25 million Ugandan shillings (6,970 USD) worth of military ammunition. It is unclear if the extra-judicial killing of Irumba was in some way related to his human rights work. He had recently been investigating two high-profile corruption cases, one on a health centre and the other on a local politician under investigation for illegally levied taxes. TLC believes that Irumba was killed to prevent him from revealing incriminating information on the security officials involved, either obtained during the altercation or beforehand. The two security officers in question have been formally charged with the murders. Four other TLC staff members have faced spurious charges related to the possession of explosive devices and poison brought against them in connection with a land dispute.
On 5th June 2017, the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts dismissed the lawsuit initiated by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) against the homophobic Christian evangelist Scott Lively, under the Alien Tort Statute for his actions in "aiding and abetting a vicious and frightening campaign" against LGBTI organisations, activists and the community at large in Uganda between 2002 and 2009.
The U.S. judge dismissed the case on grounds of jurisdiction, ruling that Lively's actions took place on foreign territory, but acknowledging, however, that Lively's actions did violate international law:
“Anyone reading this memorandum should make no mistake. The question before the court is not whether the defendant's actions in aiding and abetting efforts to demonize, intimidate, and injure LGBTI people in Uganda constitute violations of international law. They do”.
Though the court's decision was not a clear victory for SMUG, the judge reiterated that Lively was, in fact, responsible for rights violations against the LGBTI community:
"The record in this case demonstrates that Defendant [Lively] has worked with elements in Uganda who share some of his views to try to repress freedom of expression by LGBTI people in Uganda, deprive them of the protection of the law, and render their very existence illegal".
Freedom of expression, online and offline, remains under severe threat, with cases of harassment and attacks against journalists, censorship by the Ugandan Media Council and a new unit to 'spy' on social media users.
On 20th June 2017, editor of Red Pepper Publications Ben Byarabaha was interrogated for six hours by officers of the media crimes unit of the Ugandan Police for alleged "offensive communication" in an article entitled "Kayihura rushed to India", which reported on Inspector General of the Police Kale Kayihura's health. Byarabaha was released on bail, and was due to report again to the police on 27th June 2017 to answer to the charges of "offensive communication" under article 25 of the Misuse of Computer Act. According to information obtained by the Daily Monitor, five publications are under investigation for similar allegations.
NBS Television journalists Sabiti Joseph, Stephen Musoke, and Bonny Ojok were attacked on 12th June 2017 by the Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces, police officers and unidentified men who ordered the journalists to delete footage of the arrest of local youth in Pabbo, Amuru district. Robert Ssempala, Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda National Coordinator, condemned the incident, declaring that:
“The actions of the security personnel against these journalists cannot be tolerated- journalists play a crucial role in increasing transparency and sharing information about what is happening in communities across Uganda. The fact that these journalists were forced to delete their footage is an example of how press freedom is under constant attack in Uganda”.
In early July, unknown individuals threatened social media users debating the presidential age limit, according to Unwanted Witness-Uganda, a civil society organisation protecting online freedoms. The constitution of Uganda stipulates that the president cannot serve or campaign as a candidate if over 75 years of age. Reports on the intent of legislators from the ruling party to amend the constitution, increasing the age limit, has sparked public debate, as such an amendment would allow current President Yoweri Museveni to run for another term. Those debating the issue on Facebook and Twitter have received threatening messages on some critical social media posts.
The threats against social media users comes at a time when the Uganda Media Centre announced on 27th June 2017 that a unit consisting of state security officials and IT experts has been formed to monitor social networks, as reported by Reporters without Borders. Facebook profiles and other social media platforms will be under surveillance to identify posts critical of the government and the nation. The Uganda Media Centre is the media regulatory authority in Uganda under the control of the Ministry of ICT.
In May, Uganda's Media Council banned the 2010 Dutch movie The Dinner Club, which was to be shown at a European film festival in Kampala. The Council's objections were, among others, that the movie "depicts and glorifies homosexuality".
In a separate incident, from 27th to 30th May 2017, Radio Hoima was arbitrarily taken off the air without prior warning by the Uganda Communications Commission for allegedly broadcasting sectarian statements, which the station denies. After paying a fine of two million Ugandan shillings (approximately 550 USD) the station was allowed to broadcast again.
Radio Hoima closed down by UCC for breach of broadcasting standards https://t.co/ixU7pGWYlX— ACME Uganda (@ACME_Uganda) May 29, 2017
In another development, the Lira Magistrate Court dismissed a case on 8th June 2017 against journalist Mungu Richard Jakisa. The journalist for Radio North had been charged with defacing notices and posters under section 78(2) of the Presidential Election Act. The prosecution had claimed that Mungu, along with four others, defaced posters depicting President Museveni on 13th February 2016.
As mentioned above in the section on Freedom of Expression, reports indicate that a faction of legislators from the ruling party plans to amend the constitution to remove the presidential age limit of 75 years, allowing current President Museveni - now 72 years old - to run for another term. The proposed plan has sparked debate and protests across Uganda.
Three men were detained on 7th July 2017 for staging a mock funeral for President Museveni, parading a coffin in the south-western city of Mbarara, in protest of the government's proposal. The police asserted that the protest was held despite the fact that permission had been denied, and that the men would be charged with sedition. Other reports indicate that at least 53 people were detained for protesting against the proposed amendment, including one opposition politician - Norbert Mao of the Democratic Party.
In a separate development on 29th June 2017, police officers, along with the Uganda People's Defense Forces, fired live ammunition to disperse an angry crowd of opposition supporters who were chasing a car believed to be transporting pre-ticked ballot papers from Kasangati Resort Centre. Opposition supporters allege that the Centre is a base for election-rigging activities by the ruling party.