Uganda reels from media crackdown

Less than a week after Ugandans celebrated World Press Freedom Day, Minister of Information and National Guidance Jim Muhwezi Katugugu has banned media houses from covering opposition protests that their organisers are calling a “defiance campaign”.

The demonstrations are organised by Kizza Besigye, the leader of the Forum for Democratic Change, the country’s main opposition party.

Besigye was arrested on Wednesday; President Yoweri Museveni was sworn in for his fifth term on Thursday. 

Police said Besigye was taken to Naggalama police station, about 20km from Kampala, according to an AFP report. The reason for his latest arrest — the opposition leader has been arrested and jailed many times over the years — was not given, the agency said. Addressing members of the press, the minister said the Uganda Communications Commission and the police would implement the ban on the live coverage of the party’s activities, and that any electronic media covering the opposition’s campaign would lose their broadcast licences. He did not say anything about coverage by print media.

The commission’s executive director, Godfrey Mutabazi, also warned: “The ban may be extended to social media, if it is used as an alternative tool for propagating [the] defiance campaign.” The defiance campaign organisers plan on using weekly prayers and public demonstrations to amass support to demand an independent audit of the 2016 presidential results. 

The controversial elections, on February 18, saw Museveni win his fifth term in office with 60.75% of the vote, whereas Besigye took 35%. Besigye and his supporters say the election was rigged. International observers and human rights groups also criticised the election process. 

A local court has ruled that the defiance campaign is illegal. It said that carrying out the campaign with the aim of obtaining control of the government stands in violation of Uganda’s Constitution. 

But the opposition says the objective of the campaign is not to take over the government directly, but rather to challenge the election results through public protests. 

The Uganda Law Society has criticised the ruling, arguing that the court only heard from one party to the issue, the attorney general. The Forum for Democratic Change says that it will not respect the court order. —

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