In Ugandan courts, important press battles

In Uganda last week, four journalists from the leading daily Monitor filed notice that they would challenge the constitutionality of the criminal libel laws before the Supreme Court, the country’s highest court, according to the newspaper’s lawyer, James Nangwala. 

Monitor editors Joachim Buwembo, Robert Mukasa, Bernard Tabaire, and reporter Emmanuel Gyezaho challenged Section 179 of the Penal Code Act after they were charged in connection with 2007 articles alleging corruption in the offices of two inspectors general. A panel of five judges on Uganda’s Constitutional Court unanimously dismissed the petition this month, ruling that “it would trivialize and demean the magnificence of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution if individual members of the public are exposed to hatred, ridicule, and contempt without any protection.”

Reacting to the ruling, Mukasa, now a sub-editor with The Weekly Observer, told me: “They’re willing to spend taxpayer money trying to protect a corrupt government official at the altar of press freedom. It’s very unfortunate.” Mukasa and the others are free on what is called a police bond, which requires them to periodically report to police or a magistrate.

Mukasa’s fellow editors at the Observer, James Tumusiime and Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda have been on police bond since 2006 on charges of “promoting sectarianism.”

For now, their trial has been suspended pending a Supreme Court ruling on a challenge filed by Andrew Mwenda, editor of The Independent and a 2008 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee. Mwenda, himself under indefinite police bond and facing at least 21 criminal charges, has challenged the constitutionality of sectarianism and sedition laws. (Mwenda successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to strike down the offense of “publishing false news” in 2004.)

With these major press freedom issues before Uganda’s Supreme Court, another case in the court system has drawn considerable notice. Patrick Otim, a journalist based in the strife-torn north of the country, emerged in a courtroom last week after being held for more than four weeks incommunicado and without charge. He was finally presented in court in response to a habeas corpus application filed by human rights lawyer Ladisleus Rwakafuuzi Kiiza.

Otim was immediately charged with treason, a capital offense. The charge does not relate to journalism: He is accused, along with 10 others, of forming an armed rebel movement to overthrow the administration. The government has yet to present evidence backing the accusations but says it has seized weapons and military equipment related to the alleged offense.

For weeks, various officials had publicly denied reports that Otim was in government custody. Kiiza obtained a High Court order on June 11 declaring the secret detention unconstitutional and compelling the government to produce the journalist.

Otim’s extrajudicial detention has concerned many in the Ugandan media, with some expressing fears of intensifying repression in the lead up to elections in 2011–the kind unleashed against critical journalists during the 2005 polls.