Ugandan political radio shows allowed to resume broadcast

New York, March 14, 2008—Police in Uganda should respect a court ruling that lifts a ban on two live radio programs, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The court decision today allows two live political shows on Life FM in Fort Portal to resume broadcasting, but the station has since received a warning from police about its future programming.

On January 8, Regional Police Commander Martin Abil arrested the moderator and five panelists from Life FM’s only two live political debate programs, “Tweraneho” (Let’s Fight for Ourselves) and “Ensonga Ha Nsonga” (Reason Upon Reason) and ordered both programs off the air, station manager Patrick Nyakahuma told CPJ. The moderator and panelists have been charged with defamation and incitement of violence.

In a packed courtroom filled with Life FM listeners, Fort Portal High Court Judge Lougabya Atwooki ruled that the police commander’s actions contravened the Ugandan constitution and media laws. The regional police ordered the station manager to end the broadcasts and made the arrests claiming that the program encouraged violence against Fort Portal MP Stephen Kaliba, according to defense lawyer Musana Johnson and local journalists.

Despite the court order, the regional police commander telephoned Nyakahuma today, warning him not to invite the same group of “contentious” panelists back on the program, Nyakahuma said. Nyakahuma told the regional police commander to put his warning in a written statement and told CPJ that the two political debate programs will air tonight regardless of the warning.

“Time and again ruling party officials misuse the police to silence the press in Uganda,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “While CPJ welcomes the re-instatement of the two programs to Life FM, we call on the police should drop their case against moderator Gonza Williams and the five panelists immediately.”

Gonza Williams and the five panelists—Steven Rwagweri, Prosper Businge, Gerald Kankya, Joram Bintamanya, and David Rudomodora—were detained for two days after their January arrests. The arrested panelists are featured frequently on the political debate programs as prominent members in the Fort Portal community who are critical of the ruling party, according to local news reports. They were released on bond and charged with inciting violence and defamation, Nyakahuma said. On January 14, the six were charged in court but released on bail. Their trial is set to resume March 26, 2008.  

NRM supporters Kenneth Bajenja and Bala Kahuma, who were also featured on the two programs, were neither questioned nor arrested, Nyakahuma and local news reports said.

One of the panelists, Steven Rwageri, has been accused by local officials of using the radio program to launch his own political platform, a district NRM official told CPJ. According to Uganda’s private daily The Monitor, Rwagweri contested and lost a district election to ruling party member Michael Mugisa and used the radio programs to criticize the government. The programs have also criticized the royal family in Tooro, who hold largely ceremonial powers in western Uganda, for living an affluent lifestyle, engaging in partisan politics and alleged irregular land sales, Nyakahuma said.

Ugandan authorities have previously harassed Life FM, one of only two radio stations in Fort Portal. Last October, two guards allegedly working for prominent royal family member Best Kemigisa, destroyed the station’s transmitter in Oruha Hill with acid in broad daylight, Life FM’s owner Pastor K.L. Dickson reported. When the five panelists complained abuot the delay of the police probe into the acid attack, they were arrested by the regional police commander, The Monitor reported. In January, five journalists and editors of The Monitor were charged with criminal defamation after writing articles critical of the police. The journalists are appealing the decision and have a court hearing scheduled for April.