Four from Uganda’s Monitor face criminal charges

New York, August 25, 2009–Four journalists from Uganda’s largest independent newspaper are facing criminal prosecutions, joining four others already charged since 2007, according to local journalists and news reports.

Criminal prosecutions against the Monitor are on the rise against the backdrop of mounting national tensions in the lead-up to general elections in 2011. This month, President Yoweri Museveni, who is expected to seek re-election, warned private broadcasters against inciting public discontent with the government.

Magistrate Joyce Kavuma in the capital, Kampala, charged David Kalinaki, managing editor of the Daily Monitor, and Henry Ochieng, editor of the Sunday Monitor, with forgery after the paper ran a reproduction of a leaked presidential memorandum, according to defense lawyer James Nangwala. The Monitor had acknowledged some errors in the reproduction of the document and published a correction on August 4. Government spokeswoman Kabakumba Matsiko criticized the media’s coverage of the story, but did not dispute the document’s contents, according to local and international reports. The editors are free on a bail of 500,000 shillings (US$245) each, pending trial on October 7, the paper reported.

In a separate case, in the northern city of Gulu, Magistrate Michael Okonya rejected a petition by Monitor reporter Moses Akena, who was charged with libel on August 10, to suspend his trial pending the outcome of a constitutional challenge of criminal libel statutes before Uganda’s Supreme Court, according to defense lawyer Judith Oroma. In his ruling, the magistrate amended the charges against Akena to publishing false news–an offense the Supreme Court repealed in a 2004 decision, according to Oroma. The defense will appeal the ruling with a formal complaint to the Chief Magistrate of Gulu, she said. 

“We are alarmed by the growing crackdown on independent and critical reporting in general, and on Monitor in particular ahead of the elections,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “We hope the Supreme Court strikes down criminal defamation laws, which would bring Uganda further in line with the practice of most democratic countries.”

Another Monitor journalist, photojournalist Stephen Otage, is battling charges of “criminal trespass,” after his arrest while taking photographs of Inspector General of Government Faith Mwonda outside a courthouse on July 21. Mwonda brought a criminal libel lawsuit against four Monitor journalists who raised questions about her salary in 2007. These four brought the Supreme Court challenge to the libel law, which has not yet been decided. In the meantime, Mwonda’s lawsuit has been suspended pending the outcome, unlike in Akena’s case.