Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Today’s Uganda where you are governed like Britons of the 18th century monarch

Today’s Uganda where you are governed like Britons of the 18th century monarch
October 9, 2007
Last week government summoned three Daily Monitor journalists over an alleged seditious story published in the Sunday Monitor titled: “Soldiers Training To Take Police jobs”.

Since the matter is now a subject of police investigation this column will not delve into the merits and demerits of the story. However, it’s prudent to examine the role of the media especially the independent media in a democracy if there exists one.

And this has to be addressed in the context of the constitutional rights of free speech, expression and access to information. Whether there is any justification for the existence of the law of sedition on our statute books – can’t even pass for a moot point.

It’s hard to reconcile the fact that our constitution provides for the Universal Bill of Rights where citizens are free to hold our leaders accountable while at the same time government retains a bad law that was designed to gag the media.

The offence of sedition has been rendered obsolete in other civilised democracies across the globe. This is for the simple reason that these medieval laws were enacted in the 18th century to protect the Crown (symbol of power) in the British Monarch. These were the times when everything was done at the pleasure of the king (rex) or the Queen (regina).

But people have since moved on and absolute monarchies ended many decades ago in the greater part of Europe and Africa. Obnoxious laws such as sedition were abolished to facilitate the growth of democracy where people are free to question the decisions of their leaders and make them accountable.

The offence of sedition is also frivolous in nature. The Penal Code Act provides that sedition or seditious intention is where a person or a group of people bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection against the person of the president, government by word of mouth, prints or publishes such material and circulates for the consideration of the public.

However, section 43 states that no prosecution in a seditious case can commence within six months and without consent of the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, (DPP).
Upon conviction such a person is liable (on first conviction) to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to a fine of 30,000 or both.

And this then begs the question why would a person charged with a seditious offence wait for six months before he is tried? All this was designed to intimidate and gag the critics of governments or the ‘Crown’ as it were in Britain centuries ago.

Paradoxically the Daily Monitor journalists were summoned under a law that is a subject of Constitutional petition. Technically the operations of the said contested law stand suspended and are of no legal consequence until the Constitutional Court pronounces itself on the matter. This is what was decided in the case of Semuju and Tumusiime of the Weekly Observer.

The Constitutional Petition No. 3 was filed early last year at the Constitutional Court challenging several sections of the Penal Code: 39, 40, 41, 42, 43 and 179. These sections according to the petition are in violation of article 29, 30, 38, 41 and 43 of the Constitution.

Sections 41, 42, and 43 provide for the offence of promoting sectarianism, powers of courts to confiscate printing machines and prohibiting publications. The other law challenged in the Constitutional Court is section 179 which provides for criminal libel- where a person unlawfully prints, paints, writes or makes an effigy that defames another person.

All the above provisions of the Penal Code, according to the petition, violate the constitutional rights to freedom of conscience, access to information, expression, right to education and the general civil rights which permit Ugandans individually and collectively to participate in the affairs of the government and influence policies through civil organisations.

In an effort to justify its illegal actions government has on many occasions erroneously invoked article 45 which states that the enjoyment of fundamental rights should not prejudice the rights of others or public interest.

But the limitations to fundamental rights are qualified under the same article which bars political persecution and detention without trial. Government cannot also make reference to article 45 unless when done according to acceptable standards which are demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society. Parliament should expeditiously repeal all laws which don’t conform to the provisions of our constitution.
The writer is a journalist and advocate
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