Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Guard against terror without abusing rights
Recently Monitor Publications Ltd , in one of its editions , quoted top security officials talking grandly about the new tough measures instituted to secure the country against terrorist attacks.

As a country, its important that we secure our porous borders and waterways against terrorism. Ugandans must remain vigilant in the global fight against terrorists- whose extremist ideologies are hell-bent on causing maximum causalities and destruction of property in the civilised world.

But be that as it may, the new government anti - terrorism measures should not, at the same time , dull our pursuit as a people, the promotion and protection of the civil liberties enshrined in our national constitution.

While the state must be resolute in ensuring the safety of its citizens from terror acts , government should also take seriously the International Commission of Jurists, (ICJ) a body of human rights legal scholars- who are concerned that the new global counter terrorism legal regime has led to an increase in cases of human rights violations.

These extreme cases of human rights violations in the fight against terrorism which include interalia (among others), the holding of suspects in un-gazetted detention centers with out trial - coupled with torture - have been challenged in the US Supreme Court.

The court has since held among others, that the Guantanamo detainees (majority of whom are suspected terrorists arrested following the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States), have the right to go to federal court(s) to seek their release from indefinite detention.

Following that decision some ICJ scholars have argued and this column concurs ; that safe guarding persons from terrorist acts and the respect for human rights and humanitarian law, allow states a reasonably wide margin of flexibility to combat terrorism without contravening human rights and humanitarian legal obligations.

This is because in some countries the post 9/11 climate of insecurity has been exploited to justify long-standing human rights violations carried out in the name of national security.

Just like many countries around the world, following the events of 9/11, Uganda’s legislature enacted the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2002 as a measure to counter the threat of terrorism in the country.

The import of this law was the creation of the offences of terrorism, aiding and abetting terrorism, establishment of terrorist institutions, support, finance or execute acts of terrorism.

The Act also allows government security agents to intercept correspondences of and the surveillance of persons suspected to be planning or to be involved in acts of terrorism. The Act also specifically lists the terrorist organisations as, The Lords’ Resistance Army, The Lord’s Resistance Movement, Allied Democratic Forces, ADF and Al-queda.

Terrorism according to the Act has been assigned the meaning of an act committed by a person or organisation for purposes of influencing the government or intimidating the public or a section of the public and for a political, religious, social or economic aim, indiscriminately without due to regard to the safety of others or property intentionally or unlawfully cause death or serious bodily injury or extensive destruction likely to or actually resulting in major economic loss. When convicted one can suffer the death penalty.

But during the implementation of this law, there have been cases perceived by both the general public and international community especially those involving politicians as being an attempt by government to use the anti-terrorism law to harass or intimidate opposition politicians without having incriminating evidence against them.

Now that’s what is called political persecution and its not the right approach in fighting terrorism.
Let suspected terrorists be accorded their legal rights and once convicted by our courts then they should ultimately suffer the full force of the law.

We can protect ourselves against terrorism without necessarily infringing on the individual’s fundamental human rights. It’s possible to this balance right.

The writer is a journalist and advocate

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Mr President, don’t hunt your honest ally
President Museveni has of late come hard on the media which he accuses of sabotaging investment by maligning investors. This is a worrying development, not that it’s a direct attack on the freedoms of speech and expression but that it comes at a time when our Parliament has been cowed by the executive.

In a true democracy, both Parliament and the media play the role of watchdog to check the excesses of the executive. The Judiciary on the other hand, plays the role of an arbitrator to resolve conflicts between the other three arms of the state namely the executive, legislature and the media while at the same time upholding the provisions of our constitution and the attendant laws.

Ugandan journalists have continued to be harassed and more than a dozen are now facing various charges ranging from criminal libel to sedition and promotion of sectarianism even when these bad laws are now a subject of a constitutional petition which was filed by Andrew Mwenda and the East African Media Institute.

And since the matter is yet to be disposed of by the Constitutional Court, it would be prudent for the executive to suspend such offences until the court makes its ruling on the their fate. This would also be the right criminal procedure whenever there are constitutional issues to be determined in substantive petitions lying before court.

Instead, the state conveniently prefers to ignore these rather obvious/basic procedures of the law in their relentless effort to stifle media freedoms and the citizens’ right to challenge bad governance. These machinations by the state to gag the media have far reaching consequences for the wider freedoms of the citizenry, the stability and development of our young democracy.

Democracy thrive best in an atmosphere of trust, openness and accountability. It’s a constitutional right for the citizens to access information held by government and its agents in order to hold our leaders/public servants accountable for their actions.

In civilised societies media offences have been decriminalised and those wronged pursue civil remedies. The media has an important role to play as a watchdog of the public by exposing the ills in government and effectively help to stem government’s abuse of power. For democracy to flourish therefore, there must be an independent, free and vibrant media and the individual’s rights of free speech, expression and access to information must be protected.

Governments must encourage and allow positive criticism and promote tolerance in the interest of public good. Whereas Uganda is said to have relative press freedom compared to other African countries, it should be noted that the said freedom does not arise out of instrumental guarantees, but out of the mere goodwill will of the regime in Kampala. This must change. All Ugandans including the President must appreciate that fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual are inherent and not granted by the state.

Uganda still has on its statute books some of the most obnoxious, obsolete laws which were largely designed to curtail free speech and media freedoms to allow the dictatorial regimes of the day to entrench themselves in power. Some of these laws have been applied by government whenever its interests of beating the media into line arise.

These bad laws which can be successfully challenged in any court with competent jurisdiction, including the East African Court of Justice, (EACJ) can be found in the Uganda’s Criminal Penal Code Act as amended, The Press and Journalists Act, The
Anti Terrorism Act and the Electronic Media Act 2000.
The President’s apparent determination “to deal” with the media is very disturbing to say the least. The heads of state and government from Eastern Africa must embrace and work with the media for the region’s greater development. Instead of bashing the independent media, Mr Museveni should listen to them more and get unbiased information that can help him and his government grow our democracy.

Mr Sserwanga writer is a journalist and advocate