Dissidents prosecuted and journalists harassed while covering COVID-19 restrictions

Rights to freedom of expression and access to information, assembly and association have been increasingly restricted in 2020 as Uganda gears up for its scheduled elections in 2021. In particular, opposition members and their supporters, and human rights defenders advocating for non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, are increasingly under attack. Since 31st March 2020, Uganda has been on lockdown, with a curfew in place and heavy restrictions on movement, in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. Following this directive there have been several reports of police and army brutality against civilians in enforcing the President’s directive to keep movement to a minimum. 

Expression

Opposition leaders and supporters prosecuted

On 14th April 2020 General Henry Tumukunde, a former general planning to run for the presidency in Uganda, was denied bail after being held on treason charges. The court order cited the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown in denying bail, while also imposing a requirement that he provide sureties at his military rank or above to be considered for bail. The case was adjourned to 6th May 2020. Tumukunde was arrested on 13th March 2020. Police stated that he was accused of “enlisting the support of a neighbouring country to remove the current leadership.” This followed Tumukunde’s statement made the week before on NBS television: "If I was Rwanda, I would wish to support people who want to cause change in Uganda." On 11th May 2020, it was reported that he was released on bail after the High Court judge reconsidered his earlier bail terms.

Separately, on 4th March 2020, Moses Bwayo, an independent filmmaker, was remanded after being denied bail on charges related to songs he sang whilst making a film about Bobi Wine, popular musician turned legislator, who plans to run for president in the next general elections. He was first arrested in late February 2020 together with eight others as he filmed the documentary, and was accused of assembling unlawfully and singing songs “subverting or promoting subversion of the government of Uganda.” He was later released but then remanded after the 4th March ruling. This is part of what government critics call an escalating clampdown on independent media and the opposition ahead of a presidential election in the east African country early next year.

Journalists targeted while covering coronavirus-related restrictions

On 29th March 2020, Reporters without Borders (RSF) released a statement urging African governments to guarantee press freedom amid the coronavirus outbreak, noting that journalists and media outlets were facing censorship in their coverage of the pandemic. While citing reported incidents across the continent, the statement included a case in Uganda where security agents attacked Uganda Radio Network director Julius Ocungi and stole his money and camera as he tried to cover a bar being closed down.

Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk said:

What with attacks, intimidation, arrests of journalists, censorship and exclusion of critical media, press freedom must not be the collateral victims of this worldwide epidemic… Targeting journalists is undoubtedly one of the least effective ways to combat the spread of this virus. We urge the authorities of the countries concerned not to go after the wrong target and instead to ensure that journalists are able to operate freely without fear of reprisals at a time when the public needs their reporting more than ever.”

Similarly, on 1st April 2020,Nation Media Group journalist, Perez Rumanzi, was hospitalized after being severely beaten by security agents enforcing the curfew in Ntungamo district. He was badly bruised and injured, despite communicating to the soldiers that he was reporting on how people in the district were responding to the curfew. According to reports, the soldiers confiscated Rumanzi’s camera and started beating him after he refused to delete the pictures he had taken of running battles between residents and the security forces who were enforcing the curfew. The assault happened at 7.30 pm, 30 minutes after the curfew began.

Rights group urges remedy for Dr. Nyanzi’s unfair conviction

In a public statement issued on 21st February 2020, Amnesty International called upon the Ugandan government to ensure the right to an effective remedy for Dr. Stella Nyanzi, including adequate compensation and a guarantee of non-repetition for wrongful conviction. This followed Nyanzi’s release by the High Court on 21st February 2020 on grounds of unfair conviction by the Magistrate’s court after spending almost two years in prison. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Dr. Nyanzi was arrested, detained and charged under the Computer Misuse Act in November 2018 on allegations that she insulted President Museveni and his deceased mother on her Facebook page. She was later convicted in August 2019.

Amnesty International’s statement read in part:

“The Uganda government must scrap the Computer Misuse Act 2011 - a repressive law, which has been used to systematically harass, intimidate and stifle government online critics. Politicians and public authorities should tolerate criticism. Criticizing a public official should therefore never be a crime. Everyone has a right to use their social media platforms, including Facebook to raise critical issues of public interest”.

Peaceful Assembly

Public order law declared unconstitutional

In positive developments, on 27th March 2020, Uganda’s Constitutional Court ruled that Section 8 of the Public Order Management Act (POMA) (2013) is illegal and unconstitutional. The section gave the police excessive powers to prohibit political gatherings and protests. Ugandan police had most recently used the law to block meetings and concerts by opposition politician and singer, Bobi Wine, and to brutally disperse rallies by opposition politician Kizza Besigye in the lead up to the 2016 elections.

Delivering his ruling on the case, Justice Cheborion Barishaki said:

“It is only in undemocratic and authoritarian regimes that peaceful protests and public gatherings of a political nature are not tolerated… I wholly reject the notion that the police have supernatural powers to determine that a particular public gathering shouldn’t be allowed to happen because it will result in a breach of peace.”

Civil society actors welcomed the ruling terming it a welcome development for the rights to peaceful assembly and expression in the country. Amnesty International also called on Ugandan legislators to repeal the entire Public Order Management Act which was found to be in contravention of the constitution in its entirety.

Association

LGBTIQ community targeted during Coronavirus outbreak

On 30th March 2020, Children of the Sun Foundation Uganda (COSF Uganda), a shelter housing 23 LGBTIQ individuals was raided, with Ugandan police arresting those staying there on charges of failing to adhere to the rules on social distancing and risking the spread of the coronavirus. The arrests followed complaints by neighbours who according to activists targeted them because of their sexual orientation.

According to reports, the pandemic has contributed to a rise in homophobic rhetoric in Uganda, as some people blame the LGBTIQ community for the disease.