Journalists on trial for “promoting sectarianism”

New York, June 8, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply troubled that two journalists are to go on trial in Uganda, charged with “promoting sectarianism” in an article criticizing government persecution of opposition leader Kizza Besigye.

Editor James Tumusiime and reporter Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda of the independent Weekly Observer face up to five years in jail if convicted. Their trial begins June 15, Tumusiime told CPJ.

The charge stems from a Weekly Observer article published December 1, 2005, ahead of a presidential election in February won by President Yoweri Museveni. The article said Museveni and a small group of army generals from the president’s Bahima ethnic group coordinated “an operation to keep Besigye in jail.” Nganda, who wrote the article, sought comment from one of the generals, who declined to comment.

When the article was published, Besigye was in jail on treason, terrorism, and rape charges. Despite a ruling by a civilian court granting Besigye bail, the military had issued a warrant to keep him imprisoned. The warrant was later ruled illegal, and Besigye was released in early January.

Tumusiime and Nganda will plead not guilty. The charge, which falls under article 41 of Uganda’s penal code, criminalizes any statement likely to promote “feelings of hostility among or against” any group on ethnic, regional, or tribal lines. CPJ protested the decision to charge the journalists in a January letter to Museveni. CPJ also protested government threats to journalists covering Besigye’s arrest

“The decision to prosecute these journalists smacks of political retribution,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. “James Tumusiime and Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda were reporting on a matter of public concern, and the criminal charge against them should be dropped immediately.”

Uganda’s largest private media group has challenged article 41 of the penal code before the Supreme Court, Monitor Group director Conrad Nkutu confirmed today. Andrew Mwenda, a veteran political journalist working for the Monitor Group, faces 15 counts of “sedition” and “promoting sectarianism” in connection with a talk show broadcast in August 2005 focusing on the helicopter crash that killed southern Sudanese leader John Garang. Mwenda’s trial has been suspended pending the Supreme Court’s decision, Nkutu said.

Mwenda was questioned by police on Tuesday in connection with a recent article alleging that Museveni had not protested at comments made in his presence criticizing members of the Bairu ethnic group. Police said the article could “create ethnic discontent,” according to The Monitor, but did not bring further charges against Mwenda.