KAMPALA – Over 75 per cent of Ugandans believe that human rights, rule of law, and freedom of assembly and association are very restricted civic spaces to be enjoyed as constituted.
This is according to the State of Civic Space in Uganda report done by Alliance for Finance Monitoring (ACFIM).
The report attributed this to the enactment of draconian laws that were selectively enforced to suppress citizens’ dissenting voices and to silence political opposition; including; the Public Order Management Act (2013), the NGO Act (2016), the Penal Code Act (1950), the Anti-Terrorism Act (2002), the Police Act, cap 303 and the Press and Media Act (2000).
“The arrest and denial of the right to hear the bail application for the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) party leaders Hon. Allan Ssewanyana and Hon. Muhammad Ssegirinya was sighted as a leading case of reference. The freedom of information and expression was the third most restricted freedom at 57.1 per cent in terms of being restricted,” says the study.
Launching the study on Monday at their offices at Interservice Tower, ACFIM noted that the need for assessment was driven by the desire to obtain coherent understanding of the forces at play that constrain and protect civic space within which citizens and citizen organisations can enjoy their fundamental freedoms and rights, perform their civil obligations and fulfill their constitutional duties.
This assessment was conducted in 13 districts within the purposively sampled 8 sub-regions of Uganda; including Ankole, Buganda, Bugisu, Busoga, Renzori, Teso, Bukedi and Kigezi.
The focus of the assessment was freedom of information and expression, rights of assembly and association, citizen participation, non-discrimination or inclusion and human rights or rule of law.
Study shows that 53.6 per cent believe that the civic space dimension of Non-discrimination is partially protected by ratification of international covenants and enactment of laws that protect it.
“These include among others the National Constitution (1995), Persons with Disabilities Act (2006) the Employment Act (2006), the Equal Opportunities Act (2007) the Education Act (2008), and the Parliamentary Elections Act (2005).”
“Respondents rated the dimension of citizen participation as partially protected at 50 per cent, 35.7 per cent rated it as a restricted space, while 14.3 per cent perceived it as a promoted space. None of the respondents rated this dimension under non-existing in Uganda,” revealed the report.
On the dimension of non-discrimination and inclusion, 53.6 per cent of the respondents rated Uganda to be under the parameter of partially protected space, 39.3 per cent scored it at restricted space and 7.1 per cent think this is a protected space.
Whilst Uganda has domesticated a number of laws to guarantee freedom of information and expression, study shows that 57.1 per cent of the respondents argued that these laws are not being respected.
“Though Uganda has enacted a right to information law, the Access to Information Act (2005) and the Access to Information Regulations (2011), the law on access to information remains largely a paper tiger yet it plays a supportive role in promoting freedom of expression.”
Mr. Henry Muguzi – CEO, ACFIM noted that in the last two years, Ugandans experienced the most brutal life.
“We shall recall the senseless shootings on the streets of Kampala in November 18th and 19th, the subsequent kidnaps of supporters of the National Unity Platform NUP, the brutalization of journalists. Up to today, Irene Abalo cannot walk, what was her crime, trying to cover a story and yet the perpetrator, a one called Enock Abeine has never been brought to book.”
According to him, there is lack of fairness in Uganda where some people seem to be above the law.
“You cannot have democracy without information. When you read article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights, it states clearly that information is the oxygen of democracy. But you cannot have information without journalists, you cannot have information if citizens are not allowed the freedom to debate and speak about the good and bad things on the government freely on the media so that they can constitute an opinion.”
Mr. Muguzi decried the government’s increased misconstrued that Civil Society Organizations are agents of the opposition. He says that this is a deliberate propaganda by the regime “to tarnish and bastardize the good work of civil society.”
He also decried the ever-increasing monetization and commercialization of the election process in the country which blocks the capable and quality would-be leaders outside.
Ms. Ruth Namara, a governance researcher says it is common knowledge that access to information is the bloodline of decision-making, noting that it is seen as vital for empowering all citizens including those that have been left behind, the marginalized and the vulnerable.
“Access to information is potential for good governance and this is only possible if the government has the will to ensure that access to information is available to citizens and citizens are empowered to demand for this information. We strongly believe that access to information should be highly prioritized by all actors to ensure that there is a conducive space where systems are in place where people can run to if they are denied the same.”
She noted that freedom of association and peaceful assembly are key pillars of democracy and in credible electoral processes.
“Restrictions to these rights as well as shrinking civic space negatively impact Ugandans.”
Mr. Fred Musisi, a playwright and ACFIM Board Treasurer said, “The shrinking of civic space is equivalent to the government going against its citizens because it’s that space that citizens can express themselves and government gets to know what’s actually is happening and how best it can engage.”
“The more this space shrinks and people begin fearing their government, the more democracy is endangered,” he added.
The report recommends as below
1) Security agencies namely the Police, Internal Security Organisation (ISO) and the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), should stop arbitrary arrests, detentions and persecutions of human rights defenders, pro-democracy, constitutionalism, and political activists. The use of “drones” to arrest citizens with dissenting views, the inhumane treatment (flogging and battering) of Journalists covering public demonstrations and opposition presidential candidates on campaign trails including the wanton shooting against demonstrators, should cease. Relatedly, the overzealous acts of security officials at the district level who often obstruct live radio broadcasts that involve critical civil society activists and opposition politicians, particularly during electioneering period should not be tolerated.
2) Investigate all claims of torture and other inhumane acts committed against journalists, activists and opposition politicians and bring to justice those responsible and ensure that victims are adequately compensated. The perpetrators of the inhumane acts must not only be held accountable but must be seen by citizens to be brought to book. In addition, all break-ins at premises of CSOs and law firms that represent opposition political parties should be thoroughly investigated and the findings made public.
3) The recently passed Computer Misuse (amendment) Act 2022 should not be used to restrict the freedom of expression of citizens on social media and other online platforms. Government should exhibit a degree of tolerance to dissenting voices from citizens that have found refuge on online spaces. The ban on Facebook which used to be the most popular social media platform in Uganda, should be lifted to allow citizens enjoy their freedom of expression. The shutdown of internet during elections should not be repeated as it casts a shadow on Uganda’s democracy credentials.
4) Conduct additional training for members of Uganda Police Force (UPF) and other security operatives on the prevention of torture and handling/management of crowds, journalists on duty, with a view of avoiding excessive use of force against civilians during protests. There is also need to address the multiplicity of policing units and the overlapping chain of command between different policing units and between the military and UPDF. This is essential in ensuring that specific perpetuators can be identified and held accountable for violations of human rights. However, the starting point should be at recruitment where the recruitees are subjected psychological check to establish their mental disposition. Where appropriate, background checks should be conducted on the recruitees to establish a track record on their behaviors.
5) Review and amend the restrictive provisions on all legal instruments that curtail civic space, and replace them with more enabling provisions. Some of the laws that require amendment include; NGO Act 2016, the Computer Misuse (as amended) Act, 2011, the Public Order Management Act,2013 among others. These should conform to the International Conventions on Civic and Political Rights.
6) Rollout rigorous public awareness campaign on the access to information act particularly targeting the grass root citizens on their right to access to information as protected by law. This is a role that civil society is best positioned to play.