KAMPALA — Following the arrests of journalists, politicians and comedians, many media rights groups have come out to denounce the growing harassment, describing it as an attack on the freedom of expression and a “climate of fear” created by security forces ahead of general poll.
Police last week arrested four comedians for a satirical video they posted online.
The comedians, Julius Sserwanja, Simon Peter Ssabakaki, Merceli Mbabali, and Gold Kimatono, are part of a group called Bizonto and perform skits that they post online. Police also had also arrested and interrogated another musician, Gerald Kiweewa. These were picked for weeks coolers, days after police had also summoned and quizzed Twahir Damulira the programmes Manager and News anchor at Baba FM for hosting Bobi Wine for a political show. Most of these were detained and charged on charges related to promoting sectarianism and inciting violence.
“These arrests are a targeted attack on artistes and media practitioners critical of the government,” said Dr Peter G. Mwesige, the executive director of ACME. “They are intended to intimidate them and silence free expression.”
Mwesige said whereas ACME acknowledges that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, and that ‘hate speech’ should not be protected,” but we don’t believe the Bizonto and Ibanda comedy extends to a level that justifies curtailing their right to express themselves. ”
In a video, posted July 15, the group calls for people to pray for leaders in the Ugandan government and list president Museveni and the heads of government bodies including the Electoral Commission, Uganda Revenue Authority, Uganda Prisons, the Bank of Uganda, Ministry of Finance, Internal Security Organisation, and the Uganda Police as the country’s most important top leaders.
They don’t explicitly say so, but the leaders that this video highlights are all from the western region of Uganda, implying that power is concentrated in a group of men from one region of the country.
Police accused the group of “promoting sectarianism” and “causing hatred and unnecessary apprehension” with the video.
In the penal code, promoting sectarianism is punishable by up to five years in prison.
The arrest sparked outcry among Ugandans who until Tuesday July 28 were calling for the government to #FreeBizonto, after the comedy group’s name.
Police released them on bond.
In recent years, authorities have clamped down on performers and media deemed critical of the government.
In 2019, the Uganda Communications Commission passed vague rules which prohibit news that creates “public panic or unnecessary distress.”
In 2019, police blocked opposition politician and musician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, from holding concerts indefinitely. The High Court ultimately overturned that order.
Authorities have also gagged the media for airing reports covering Bobi Wine, and switched off radio stations for hosting opposition leaders like Kizza Besigye.
Uganda’s constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of expression, and the government has accepted obligations under multiple African and international treaties to respect and protect that right.
Human Right Watch in a statement has also indicated that arresting comedians for making a satirical video makes a mockery of this important right.
“….And with mere months until general elections, the government should be taking steps to ensure people can freely exercise their rights to free expression, assembly, and opinion, instead of arresting them for it.”
In a related development, police on Tuesday night sealed off the home of NBS Television in Kamwokya and blocked three opposition leaders from leaving the studio after a night talkshow programme.
Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze, FDC’s Ibrahim Ssemuju and People Power’s Fred Nyanzi are said to have slept in NBS studios to avoid arrest by police who sealed off the company studios in the night.