Wednesday, December 8, 2010


The government is proposing a new regime of laws in amendments to the existing media laws- that will add more restrictions to the already delicate media environment in Uganda. Legal experts and media practioners see the new proposed media legal regime as being targeted to beat the media into line ahead of the 2011 elections.

Despite its acclaimed popularity, the NRM government has always been wary of free and independent media. But for all the government’s unconstitutional maneuvers to curtail free speech, the draconian proposed amendments should not even be given a hearing even in our national parliament .

This is for the simple reason that government’s resolve to beat the media into submission does not rhyme with democratic values. It also against the universally accepted legal and moral principles that allow individuals the inherent right to freedom of speech and expression. The same principles apply to the media because a free press is very important in a democratic society to guard against the excesses of the state or government presided over by elected leaders.

Constitutional and media experts have argued that if the amendments are passed as drafted ,they would restrict freedom of expression in Uganda and impede the ability of journalists and media outlets to fulfill their democratic roles by imposing unnecessarily onerous registration and licensing requirements on both the print and electronic ,broadcasting media. The Constitution of Uganda in articles 27,41, provides that the people of Uganda have the right to express themselves freely and access information. These rights as stated in the constitution are inherent to the individual and cannot be granted by the state.

But the proposed laws contradict these provisions of the constitution. For instance under the proposed amendments , newspapers are required to apply for annual licensing . But worse still, Media Council , the regulatory body , is given broader powers to withdraw licenses at will if it deems the actions of the media house to “undermine national security, stability, or unity,” and are “against Uganda’s foreign relations, and the country’s economy”.

These are contestable constructs that would have to be defined clearly and narrowly if they are to pass the constitutional test for imposing limitations on right to freedom of expression. Requiring the annual licensing of newspapers by the Media Council puts undue burden on the profession and on the industry, thereby restricting the public’s broader right to freedom of expression and access to information.
And giving the Media Council the absolute discretion to define those terms as a condition for renewal of a license or as a basis for penal action would make the regulator an absolute determinant of what should constitute media content. This amounts to a “substantive restriction” on freedom of expression as stated in constitutional and supreme courts leading precedents.

In the land mark Supreme Court case of of Charles Onyango- Obbo and Andrew Mujuni Mwenda vs. Attorney General (AG) court stated: @ It’s difficult to imagine a guaranteed right more important to democratic society than freedom of expression. Indeed , a democracy cannot exist without that freedom to express new ideas and to put forward opinions about the functioning of public institutions.” Court emphasized the fact that press freedom and the individual’s right to express ideas and thoughts freely cannot be suppressed unless the situations created by allowing the freedom are pressing and the community interest is endangered. This means that the anticipated danger to national security and public order should not be remote, conjectural or farfetched.

However it should be noted that in Uganda and with the new proposed amendments , the government continues to treat press freedoms as a matter of strategic public bluster and not a constitutional guarantee. This is because the state functionaries are averse to public criticism because of the sometimes, irrational and, in some cases, undemocratic manner in which they run government.

But the primary objective of freedom of expression is to empower people to participate in decisions that affect their livelihood. And this empowerment cannot be over-emphasised especially now that we are heading into the general elections. This is especially true in the context of the forthcoming elections where candidates seeking elective national political offices should address the issues that are central to the Ugandan public.. In other words, freedoms of speech, expression and the media are intended to promote accountability and transparency in governance.
In the same Supreme Court case cited above , the learned judges cemented this principle of the law by stating that “ in a free democratic society it is almost too obvious to need stating that those who hold office in government and who are responsible for public administration must always be open to criticism. Any attempt to stifle or fetter such criticism amounts to political censorship of the most insidious and objectionable kind.

But a democracy means that there will always be two or more competing views- political and otherwise- to allow those who are governed the freedom to make a free choice on how they should be led. The media is just a vehicle by which these democratic ideas are conveyed. The proposed amendments therefore go against the wisdom of the court judgment in the Onyango Obbo case.

And on the balance, government has the largest share of the media platform in this country. By having a national radio and television network with the widest reach, and owning majority shares in the Vision Media Group that boasts of two daily newspapers, regional publications s and a string of radio stations, the government far outcompetes its political rivals in having its political philosophies and policies disseminated to the masses.

In any case, governments all over the world can only sell their policies to the public and the media for support. They can force public or pro-government media to toe the official line to manufacture consent but they cannot force the audience to buy those policies wholesale.

And one wonders why government is pushing for the amendments just months to the general elections when there is already a broad legal regime to govern the media in this country. The Press and Journalists Act and the Electronic Media Act are laws which provide for regulation of journalists in practice and set ethical standards for their conduct. These laws were enacted after consultations with all the stakeholders who included among others , government officials members of parliament on the parliamentary legal committee, the civil society organizations , the public, journalists and managers of media houses.

The existing legal framework governing the media laws also put in place disciplinary procedures and measures that can be taken against errant media and journalists. The problem is that the state has done very little to enforce these laws to ensure fairness on part of the media and the aggrieved public.
And when they have chosen to apply the provisions of the law the enforcing agencies, in this case , the Media and the Broadcasting Councils have done so -albeit selectively and on political instigation. And their decisions have been generally outrageous. In the recent two cases of State vs Red Pepper in the Gaddafi-Tooro Queen Mother case and suspension of journalists and closure of radio stations following the September riots- the accused persons and management of the closed radio station where never given a hearing. Thus the principle of fair trial and rule of natural justice which allows for an accused person to be heard before an impartial tribunal were never followed. All this was in fragrant violation of the national constitution.

No wonder there is been continued agitation since the bloody September riots for the opening of the Central Broadcasting Station and Buganda privately owned radio. Government on October 22 agreed to re-open the radio without any conditions after almost 11 months since it was closed down. The closing of the station led to loss of jobs for many young people and deprived the public of virtual information needed to make informed decisions. The country does not need to go back to these dark days since neither party in the CBS case has gained anything in the radio’s being off air for this long.

The law should be employed to protect the public good and not political ambitions of a few in leadership. The are also other laws that impact on the work of journalists in a negative way and could be invoked by the state especially in the coming general elections. These include the Anti-Terrorism Act and the Access to Information Act. Under the Anti- Terrorism Act, there is a lacuna( legal gap) about the definition of who a ‘terrorist’ and ‘publication’ is . This lacuna in the law is a cause of serious concern among the media professionals in the country, largely because many government officials including President Museveni have in the past openly equated journalists to rebels or labeled them government enemies.

But more disturbing is that the law hands out the death penalty to journalists found guilty of publishing or airing information or material deemed to promote terrorism. The death penalty which is still protected by the country’s constitution, leads to self censorship among journalists who may fear to be convicted for alleged publication of material that the state may deem to be promoting terrorism.
On the other hand the Access to Information Act , unnecessarily gives enormous powers to a public servant not to release information in the custody of the state if he/she deems it to be prejudicial to ‘national security’. And there are already cases where this power has been abused. In the case of Charles Mwanguhya and Angelo Izama vs State and now being heard in the constitutional court, government refused to release the oil contracts after the two journalists applied for the information under the provisions the Act. The government officials invoked the powers given to them under the Act to decline the release of information by citing ‘threats to national security’. Some of these laws therefore, need to be revisited and the repugnant sections repealed.
It’s also encouraging that the Uganda Newspaper Editors and Proprietors Association has rightly and promptly objected to the state machination’s to gag the media. In their recent statement the association has called for dialogue between the government and the media to allow the regulations that will not impinge on the fundamental rights of press freedom and the freedoms of free speech and expression.

It’s a fact that journalism is no easy task at the best of times- especially when questions are raised about the workings of journalists and the capacity of the media especially those outside the realm of government- to provide accurate, reliable and timely information on the conduct of those who are in charge of running the government.

The role of the media in a young democracy like Uganda is very crucial in highlighting and exposing the wrongs and excesses of government officials and the widespread corruption in public service.

And while media firms and journalists’ groups like UNEPA should promote higher professional standards among journalists, it’s also the duty of the press as the 4th estate to expose abuse of power by those who are in authority. This the watchdog function, which is a true democratic mandate of the media.

It’s now an accepted international legal norm that a free media is essential for creation of democratic societies. This is a universal and fundamental right.

It is pertinent to point out at this stage that the government maneuvers to gag the media through legal and other means is inconsistent with the rapidly changing media technologies. Its strategy to target formal media ignores the new media which has proved far more widespread than earlier believed.
The advent of digital reporting, text news messages and global phenomena of the dot-com journalism and citizen journalism has changed the speed and reach of news.
The total newspaper daily print run in Uganda is less than 100,000 copies. But there are six million mobile telephone subscribers in the country. Any news that government would wish printed can easily be circulated over the phone to six million Ugandans.

But in Uganda the government continues to treat press freedoms as a matter of strategic public bluster and not a constitutional guarantee. This is because the state officials are averse to public criticism. This is because of the way some state operatives employ unconstitutional means when dealing with journalist or where individual rights are freedoms are abused.

Cases have been recorded where security officials harass, beat and lock- up journalists for a mere spoken or written word. The ideal would be for government to use its vast media outlets to make counter arguments or clarifications, or even follow legal channels to counter the media.
The government has a legion of well paid media and public relations advisers and strategists it can use to counter the alleged falsehoods peddled by the “errant” private publications through public sensitisation and provision of the correct information without resorting to macho maneuvres against journalists.

It is a contradiction in terms for state officials to intimidate the media and at the same time brandish democratic credentials. A vibrant and free media environment is but the hallmark of civil liberties.

There is no denying that the media practitioners have to act responsibly. It’s also true that some elements in the media are guilty of partisanship, corruption, lack of professionalism due to little or no professional training. But these shortcoming should not be the basis for government censorship. Rather the government should encourage more self-regulation and better training of journalists.

There is an elaborate appeal process right up to the Supreme Court and better still the aggrieved public can sue to recover damages and be compensated for the wrongs suffered at the hands of journalists. The state therefore has no justification nor constitutional authority to arrest journalists and have their houses ransacked for purported crimes not recognised under our constitution.
It should be argued that from the above highlighted cases its clear that the increased criminalization of misdemeanours, and increased sanctions against the media have created a situation where security officers exceed their mandate when dealing with perceived media offences.
And some of the provisions of the law governing the media in this country including the proposed amendments are largely aimed at muzzling free speech and expression rather than guaranteeing it with reasonable provisions. In this situation, security officers do not consider it their duty to protect media freedoms but come in only to curtail them.
More anti-media laws mean the State no longer considers media vital in exposing rot in its systems, hence lack of political will to tame vices like corruption and abuse of office or even possible electoral malpractices in forthcoming elections.

We should not allow this practice to take root or to be perceived to be the norm because without a free media and without allow for divergent critical views ,the country’s young and fragile democracy will only be doomed to fail.

A media strategy that encourages intellectual discourse, openness on part of government, dialogue and tolerance for divergent views will go a long way to grow our democracy. Gagging the media is not a good idea and it won’t work.

The media being the last frontier to realising civil liberties should never give in to state patronage let alone harassment.

The writer is the Monitor Weekend Editions Editor and Advocate of the High Court of Uganda.

This article was this month published in the Uganda Media Review journal published by the Uganda Media Development Foundation and funded by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. All rights reserved. or

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


By Moses Sserwanga
Parliament has this year created more than 20 new districts bringing the number of
the local administrative units to an unprecedented 119.
Uganda is one of the smallest countries in Africa with more districts than any
other country on the continent. Algeria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of
Congo are the largest countries in Africa but each has less than 60 districts.
DR. Congo has 41 districts, Sudan 54 and Algeria only 34 districts.
This has certainly placed great strain on the limited physical and human
resources with some districts having hardly any competent technocrats to run
them. Another area of our public life that has been affected by the
proliferation of districts in this country, is the coordination of both
policy and institutional structures.
Although there have been efforts to develop and reform the decentralisation
programme with government considering a more advanced approach to public
administration through the E- government project, no tangible- positive results
have been realised that far. The E-government system installed by a Chinese
company Hauwei to help ministries coordinate their activities without
officers necessarily moving places, has not been optimally utilised .
Often the craze for new districts has been driven by political imperatives
without sustained planning to take into account the costs and what it takes to
deliver quality, adequate and timely services to the majority rural poor.
That’s why government should fast track the implementation of the E-government
programme .
E- government is a revolutionary concept that has given public administration a
new meaning in some of the more advanced countries like China. In china
alone ,the E-government model has helped transform local administration -
enabling improved coordination between the central , provincial and local
administrative units .
The successful example of this model can be borrowed from China’s western
mountainous province of Chengdu where a standard service oriented
E-government was created just six years ago and its now serving between 2-3
million people a year.
With this model, the central and provincial governments are in position to
speedily coordinate the operations of 43 ministries at a one stop center . For
instance if you are a foreign investor and you want to set up business in
Chengdu city , you don’t have to run from one ministry to another. All you need
to do is visit the Chengdu E- government service facility with highly
centralised service windows to address almost all people’s needs at reduced
cost and time.
This has created transparency, led to reduction in administrative costs and
red tape-ensuring a good business environment that is the hall mark of china’s
tremendous economic growth. With the e-goverment model the public is in
constant touch with the local administrators to determine public policy and the
pace of social and economic advancement. Public servants are monitored
through CCTV to ensure that they report for duty on time and attend to public
affairs with a professional tenacity that allows the Chinese people to work 24/7.
This approach is also quite significant because its has altered democratic
governance as it traditionally constituted - making nonsense of the quest by
any public servant / politician to make arbitrary decisions without the
approval of the people governed.

It has also opened up space for the leaders at all levels to exercise
creative policy engineering often needed to lift the economy . This can
perhaps explain why china , only this week ,became the second largest
economy in the world effectively overtaking Japan the hitherto, perennial
occupier of the number two position after the United States of America.
Now that our leaders are hell bent at creating as many districts as they can
possibly be, let them at least embrace the E- government model to scale down on
the costs of public administration and provide quality services to the people
in reasonable time.

The writer is a journalist and advocate


Moses Sserwanga interviewed Uganda's ambassador to China about the economic ties between the two countries now that China is the second largest economy in the world
excerpts below:

Can you give us an overview of the economic relationship between China and Uganda?

The relationship between China and Uganda is good. We engage in the private sector, commerce, trade, investment and government projects. The e-government project in Uganda is one of the several projects supported by China with $106million under concessional loan arrangement. Other projects include: a hospital of 100 beds, which is being built at Naguru, Kampala, an agricultural technological demonstration centre, aqua-culture and a fish farm which is being built at Kajjansi. Also inclusive is a government complex, a twin building which is being constructed adjacent to Parliament, the former Criminal Investigations Department Headquarters among others.

What are the trading ratios and Chinese investments in Uganda this year?

Trade volumes have been growing. In 2006, trade volume between China and Uganda was $170 million and we are now in excess of $300million.

What are the major exports to China?
At the moment, it is cotton, hides, skins, coffee and fish.

In terms of Foreign Direct Investment how has Uganda benefited from China’s tremendous economic growth?
According to Uganda Investment Authority records, Chinese companies are the leading investors in Uganda at the moment. I do not have the exact figures though.

What is the latest about the National Back Bone Infrastructure knowing that internet is now a major factor for development and then the e-government project where a Chinese company Hauwei is providing software systems?
The first phase of the project was largely to improve communication coverage within Kampala, Entebbe and Jinja for purposes of successfully hosting Chogm. The second phase is to cover the broader area of Uganda beyond the three towns and eventually to cover the whole country and ultimately the 3r 3rd phase is to cover the component of e-government.

How was the NBI and e-government project supposed to work in areas where there is no electricity?
In terms of the e-government project in Uganda, there are two aspects to it. One, the usage, the ability to use and the desire to use. This is a new project. It is supposed to go up to the sub-county level. Depending on whether those people in the offices at the sub-county would wish to use these facilities. There is the issue of facilitating the infrastructure that is put in place in order to increase the utilisation of the e-government which will help to provide good environment for investors and businessmen. It will cut down on the red-tape and corruption. The government is handling its part, which is to provide electricity to various locations. There is a programme financed by China for development of solar energy, late this year or next year targeting electricity deficiency in the remote areas.

It is alleged that shoddy work was done on the NBI, what’s your response?
If somebody says shoddy work was done that is a subjective statement because I believe this was a big project and there were set standards, set specifications and set quality outcomes. To say shoddy work was done there must be an evaluation done by some authority and the same authority must have determined that shoddy work was done. To the best of my knowledge no competent authority came up with report to say Huawei did shoddy work. It was speculation by different people.

Ingrained in the contract, there were set standards. Somebody must have proved that Huawei breached the contract in terms of those set standards. We have the National Information Technology Authority, we have the Ministry of ICT, I guess we have several agencies in Uganda who would come up with a position that Huawei did shoddy work and not based on speculations as was the case.
Secondly this is a big company in China and globally which cannot allow their reputation to be tarnished by substandard work. There were allegations of corruption; again this was subjective and speculative. Uganda has well stipulated procurement procedures which were followed and I know the Chief Executive officer of Huawei and top management practice zero-tolerance to corruption. Rather than speculate, Ugandans need to embrace this project. The contractors have done a good job according to the facts available to me.

How about the issue of cost? There are reports that the Uganda project cost more than that of Rwanda.
That is comparison. What were the components in terms of e-government and NBI? There is the element of taxation. In Rwanda did they pay taxes, the area coverage? The information I have is that the cost taking into account all the components was almost the same. There were no major deviations. The Uganda component is inclusive of equipment and civil works and taxes.

Is China interested in oil extraction or oil refinery in Uganda?
China has shown interest in the oil industry in Uganda. Chinese companies are already taking over interests of Heritage in the exploration stage. The President of Uganda has been emphasising that we will not export crude oil and that we must refine it from here.

The Minister of Energy has been to China for talks. Sinopec, a major Chinese player in the oil industry has shown interest in building an oil refinery in Uganda and I hope the negotiations will be successfully concluded. Sinopec officials will be visiting Uganda sometime next month (September) for more negotiations. Once the negotiations are concluded, hopefully by the end of this year, we will be in position to negotiate with the government of China.
How many Ugandans are living and studying in China?
At the moment, every year China offers Ugandan students scholarships at all levels, at graduate and post graduate levels, 35 students per year and there is an existing exchange programme for human resource training. Every year, more than 300 Ugandans of various disciplines come to China for various courses ranging from one year to six months. There is a lot of cooperation at the political level, in terms of training. There are vast opportunities and there are times when there is a need for specialised skills obtainable in China and a request is made by the Ugandan government to the China government and the embassy follows up the matter.

How will Uganda benefit from the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China?

First we are grateful to the China government for supporting Uganda and other countries to take part. They provided money to set up the African pavilion. I was told about $650,000 was spent for the construction of the African pavilion. The Expo will help us to showcase what we have, especially in areas of tourism. Many visitors have been to our stand. The benefits are many.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Uganda is privileged to host the first landmark review conference of the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) . The United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon will open the historic conference today at Munyonyo.
It’s 12 years since the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (often referred to as the International Criminal Court Statute or the Rome Statute), the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC) was adopted at a diplomatic conference in Rome. The statute, which came into force on July 1, 2002 and has since been ratified by 110 countries including Uganda, has drastically changed international criminal law.
The Rome Statute and its implementing agency the International Criminal Court, has in the short period of its existence ensured that perpetuators of horrendous crimes against humanity do not escape the rule of law. And the list of indicted suspects grows by the day, the latest being those accused of perpetuating crimes against humanity during the 2007/8 post election violence in Kenya.
The ever elusive Joseph Kony and his Lords Resistance Army (LRA) deputies Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo and Raska Lukwiya have also been indicted but are yet to face trial at the ICC. They stand accused of 33 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the people of northern Uganda in the last 20 years.
The indictment of these men and others still at large in various parts of the world proves one thing ; that the Rome Statute which is now up for review, has to a certain degree been effective in ensuring that there is no place for impunity in the 21st Century. Of course there is a lacunas (gaps) in the Rome Statute which must be filled.
One such gap is the lack of a definition for the international crime of aggression. It is now a serious issue of contention because of the presumed influence of the powerful nations when they seek to attack or invade weaker nations without the approval of other civilized states.
Unlike the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, the International Criminal Court (ICC) cannot exercise jurisdiction for the crime of aggression because the Statute is silent on its definition and doesn’t set out the circumstance under which court can summon suspects.

However , according to the proposed amendment the individual crime of aggression is now defined as the planning, preparation, initiation or execution by a person in a leadership position, of an act of aggression. Importantly, it contains the threshold requirement that the act of aggression must constitute a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations, which is basically an instrument geared at the peaceful co-existence of nations.

The act of aggression is the use of armed force by one State against another State without the justification of self-defense or without authorisation by the Security Council. The acts of aggression contained in the amendment proposals involve invasion by armed forces, bombardment and blockade.
It’s encouraging that in an effort to avert cross border wars between or among nations, the threshold and formulation of the proposed definition: there is preliminary compromise made by many states that the powerful states should not use their positions to invade other countries without the approval of the international community. It should be noted , however, that USA, France and Britain are some of the super powers still opposed to this settlement.

On the issues of ICC’s jurisdiction, there is also broad consensus that an investigation could be opened by the prosecutor on the basis of a UN Security Council referral, a state-party referral, or proprio motu (the prosecutor’s own volition). In other words, the same trigger mechanisms would apply as in the case of the other three crimes under the Court’s jurisdiction. No nation should be allowed to invade another without just cause and support of other civilised states.

The writer is a journalist and advocate