Court strikes down repressive legislation

New York, February 12, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) welcomes yesterday’s ruling of the Ugandan Supreme Court, which declared unconstitutional a legal provision allowing journalists to be charged with “publishing false news.” However, CPJ remains concerned about a recent series of threats to press freedom in the country.

Yesterday, the court struck down Section 50 of the Penal Code, which says that “any person who publishes a false statement, rumor or report which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public is guilty of criminal offense.” Chief Justice Joseph Mulenga said in his judgment, “I declare that Section 50 of the Penal Code Act is inconsistent with Article 29 (1) of the Constitution and it is void.” Article 29 (1) stipulates that “Every person shall have the right to (a) freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media.”

The legal challenge to Section 50 first arose in 1997, when Charles Onyango-Obbo, then managing editor of the independent daily The Monitor, and Andrew Mwenda, a senior investigative reporter at the paper, filed a petition with the Constitutional Court after both were charged under the section for a story that, according to The Monitor, “said the late Congolese President, Laurent Kabila, paid Uganda in gold, for the country’s help in ousting the late Mobutu Sese Seko.” After the Constitutional Court rejected the petition, the journalists appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

As a result of yesterday’s court ruling, charges of “publishing false information” brought against three journalists from The Monitor in 2002 over an article claiming that an army helicopter had crashed while on mission against the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) will be dropped. The LRA has been fighting government forces in northern Uganda for more than 15 years. However, criminal charges of “publishing articles that are contrary to national security” stemming from the article remain against the journalists, and court hearings are ongoing.

The Monitor targeted with other press freedom abuses
In addition to the remaining criminal case against The Monitor journalists, Ugandan authorities have regularly targeted the paper and its staff.

On February 5, 2004, after the paper published an article about an ongoing inquiry into so-called ghost soldiers in the national army—or names on the army’s personnel lists that do not correspond to real soldiers even though salaries are being drawn for them—the government obtained a High Court injunction stopping The Monitor from publishing any other details about the investigation. The injunction was granted based on authorities’ claims that the details of the inquiry are “of a highly sensitive and classified security nature,” according to The Monitor.

Several times in January, Army spokesman Maj. Shaban Bantariza accused Andrew Mwenda, who now directs The Monitor‘s radio station, Monitor FM, and former Monitor editor Wanyama Wangah of collaborating with LRA rebels after the army said it found the journalists’ phone numbers on the body of a slain LRA commander. While the journalists have not yet been formally charged of any crime, the accusations come in the context of Uganda’s Anti-Terrorism Act, adopted in 2002, which states that anyone found to have any dealings with anyone the government considers a “terrorist” faces harsh punishment, ranging from lengthy prison sentences to the death penalty. Both Mwenda and Wangah have denied having links to the LRA, and employees at The Monitor have told local and international media that the journalists’ telephone numbers were public and widely available.

In December 2003, the government was granted another High Court injunction. The ruling came after The Monitor reported that the Constitutional Review Commission had rejected a controversial Cabinet proposal to lift the two-term limit on the presidency, which would allow President Yoweri Museveni to run again in Uganda’s next presidential elections. The paper promised to release further details, but the injunction kept them from doing so.