Ugandan police arrested Johnson Musinguzi Byarabaha, one of the owners and directors of the private media company Pepper Publications, on November 21, 2017, alongside seven of his colleagues. He is also the chief financial officer of the company.
Five directors, including Musinguzi, who also co-own the company, and three editors with the company’s Red Pepper and Bwino newspapers were on November 27 charged with three counts of libel, three counts of offensive communication and one count of publishing information that is prejudicial to security, according to a charge sheet seen by CPJ and media reports.
Prosecutors said the charges relate to an article published on November 20 in Red Pepper stating that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was planning to overthrow Rwandan President Paul Kagame. According to Reuters, the article cited unnamed sources.
Uganda’s foreign ministry accused the newspaper of reproducing a “malicious” article that had originally been published by a Rwandan outlet. According to Reuters, newspapers in Uganda have recently reported on tensions between Uganda and Rwanda.
Prosecutors claimed that the story discussed military operations and strategies in a manner “likely to disrupt public order and security” in violation of section 37 of the penal code. This offense carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison.
Prosecutors also said that Red Pepper intended to defame Museveni, his brother, defense adviser General Salim Saleh, and Security Minister Lieutenant Henry Tumukunde. Under Ugandan law this charge carries a prison sentence of up to two years.
In the charge of offensive communication, prosecutors contend that the eight Red Pepper employees repeatedly used computers to disturb the “peace, quiet and right to privacy” of Museveni, Saleh and Tumukunde. This offense carries a sentence of up to two years and/or a fine of up to 480,000 Ugandan shillings (US$132).
Authorities charged Musinguzi alongside the other Pepper Publications directors Richard Tusiime, Patrick Mugumya, James Mujuni, and Arinaitwe Rugyendo as well as Red Pepper editors Ben Byarabaha and Richard Kintu, and Bwino editor Francis Tumusiime.
Their arrests came after police raided the Red Pepper offices in Kampala on November 21, Pepper Publications lawyer Dickens Byamukama told CPJ.
Following the arrests, the group was held at Nalufenya Detention Center in Jinja, a town in eastern Uganda, for six days without charge. At the arraignment on November 27, the accused denied the charges and applied to be released on bail, according to the Kampala-based press rights organization Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-U).
Byamukama told CPJ that the court adjourned the decision on the bail application until December 5 to allow the prosecutor time to scrutinize documents of sureties submitted to the court. The accused were remanded to Luzira prison in Kampala to await the new court date.
During their raid of Red Pepper’s Kampala office, authorities confiscated phones, laptops, and all hard drives of the company’s computers, according to Byamukama. HRNJ-U reported that the newspaper premises were under “siege” by the police for days. Byamukama told CPJ that Red Pepper ceased printing and as of November 30, 2017, had not resumed publication.
Red Pepper has previously drawn the ire of Ugandan authorities. In June, police interrogated editor Ben Byarabaha on allegations of offensive communications, and in October police questioned editors from the paper on similar charges.
In January 2016, Byarabaha was held by authorities for 24 hours after he refused to reveal the source of a photograph published in the newspaper, according to CPJ research. In 2013, Red Pepper was one of four media outlets temporarily shut down following the publication of a story on an alleged plot for Museveni’s son to succeed him.