For over a month now, another pair of Daily Monitor journalists have been subjected to periodic visits to the police Criminal Investigations Department to explain themselves over an August 19 Sunday Monitor scoop.
The story said that the Inspector General of Government, Justice Faith Mwondha, had irregularly opted for the higher Sh4, 575, 000 monthly salary for judges instead of her official IGG remuneration of Sh2, 900, 000.
The IGG instructed the police to prefer criminal libel charges against News Editor Robert Chrispin Mukasa and Senior Reporter Emmanuel Davies Gyezaho- who are out on Sh500, 000 non-cash police bond.
For starters the offence of criminal libel is archaic and offends the spirit of our constitution which allows freedom of the press, speech and expression. If the IGG strongly feels that she was wronged by the Sunday Monitor article, she can claim damages by filing a civil suit for defamation (civil libel).
Ugandans are entitled, by the provisions of our constitution, to receive information in oder to make informed decisions. That’s why the fourth President of USA James Madison once said that knowledge will forever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.
Madison’s statement clearly shows that the man understood the true values and principles of democracy which call for an atmosphere of trust , openness and accountability between leaders and the people they govern.
The right to access information is codified in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly resolution ob December 1948. Similarly Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which came into force on March 23, 1976, to which Uganda is a party, provides that everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
That everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print , in form of art or through any other media of his choice.
Why then has the government not repealed the obnoxious laws that still exist on our statute books? Why again, should public officers like the IGG, herself a learned judge, hide behind an obsolete piece of legislation – to intimidate and harass journalists?
Perhaps the answer to these questions can be found in Uganda’s abhorrent culture of secretiveness and impunity; where the leaders of this nation at all levels are under an illusion that they are immune or above the provisions of law.
They shameless fear public accountability and scrutiny . They don’t want their actions to be questioned by anyone, least we the ‘lesser mortals’. They will try everything within their means to stifle free speech, to gag the media, civil society, the opposition and even the people they lead.
It’s this culture that breeds intolerance, violence and dictatorship, which ultimately leads to failed states. And who bears the brunt of all this mess-- the ordinary people– you and me. Our misery is in most cases colossal and we have nowhere to run to because most of the institutions that would ensure our very survival are in most cases compromised.
Some of these sacred rights of an individual were well expounded in the Supreme Court case of Charles Onyango Obbo and Andrew Mwenda versus the Attorney General.
The court considered the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in which Mclachlin J, who wrote the majority judgement rightly observed that tests of free expression frequently involve a contest between the majority view of what is true or right and an unpopular minority view. She however ruled that while a particular content of a person’s speech might “excite popular prejudice” there is no reason to deny it protection.
In other words, if there is any principle of the constitution that more imperatively call for protection, than any other it is the principle of free thought-not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for thought that we hate.
The writer is a journalist and advocate