Uganda court scraps controversial sedition law after saying it limits free speech

By Godfrey Olukya, AP
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Uganda court scraps controversial sedition law

KAMPALA, Uganda — A Ugandan court on Wednesday scrapped sedition legislation used to prosecute more than a dozen journalists and politicians, a decision campaigners described as a victory on a continent where freedom of speech is often under attack.

A panel of five judges unanimously ruled that the law restricted the freedom of speech guaranteed by Uganda’s constitution.

The law defined sedition as anything spoken or written that incited hatred against the president, government or judiciary of Uganda. It dated back to British colonial days but was incorporated by the 1995 constitution.

The case began after the East African Media Institute instituted a petition four years ago. Ten journalists and five politicians have cases pending under the law, which allows for sentences of up to five years.

After registrar Asaph Ntengye read out the court’s decision, several activists attending the hearing held a short celebration in the court compound.

“I am happy that the court has ruled in our favor. I have been with 25 cases in court, 17 have been sedition and 8 are of promoting sectarianism. The 17 cases are now no more. I am very happy over that,” said Andrew Mwenda, the owner of Independent Magazine.

Uganda is ruled by military strongman Yoweri Museveni, who won a third term as president after he changed constitutional term limits. It has a vibrant and occasionally libelous press.

President Museveni was not worried by the scrapping of the law, said his press secretary, Tamale Mirundi.

“The ruling indicates that we are moving toward a more democratic system,” said Mirundi. “However the scrapping of the law does not mean that anyone can bash the president in the press. Other means of protecting him will be put in place. By the way, he can as an individual sue anyone in who writes rubbish against him.”

Other African nations are struggling with their own media laws, said Ambroise Pierre, head of Africa desk for Reporters Without Borders.

In Kenya, editors are objecting to legislation passed earlier this year that they say could be interpreted to mean news and talk shows should be passed by censors as well as movies.

In South Africa, journalists and writers are campaigning against two proposed laws. One would jail reporters for publishing information the government deems secret, and another would allow parliament to create a tribunal to discipline journalists.

In the Central African nation of Chad, the National Assembly adopted a law last week protecting journalists from being jailed for libel but allowing sentences for inciting hate or violence, a clause that Pierre said was too broadly worded.

“Defending the right of journalists to investigate sensitive issues freely helps prevent corruption,” he said, noting recent improvements in legislation in Guinea and Niger. “But pushing for positive press laws in Africa isn’t enough to guarantee a press freedom. It is an important first step but it takes time to build respect for journalists.”

Associated Press Writer Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.

will not be displayed