Uganda: Vicious crackdown on protest, journalism, and opposition around by-election

ARTICLE 19 condemns the continued disregard for the freedoms of expression and assembly, and other human rights, by the Ugandan government and law enforcement. After the mid-August detention of a number of journalists, politicians and protestors, there are reports that those currently held in detention for exercising their right to freedom of expression have been subject to serious abuse by security forces. On 23 August 2018 politician Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, was released from incommunicado detention, showing visible health problems, before being arrested and charged with treason and taken into police custody. Protests over the past few days calling for the release of the arrested and detained opposition politicians, journalists, and civilians, have been met by the excessive use of force, leaving two protesters dead.

ARTICLE 19 urges the government to fully investigate and punish reported ill-treatment of the detainees in military detention, and the use of incommunicado detention for those exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly must immediately cease. The government must urgently reverse this brutal crackdown on the opposition and the press.

Recent protests were sparked by the 13 August arrest of six opposition MPs, at least two journalists, and 28 other people in advance of the 15 August by-elections in the northwestern town of Arua. On the same day, Yasiin Kawuma, driver for now arrested politician Bobi Wine, was shot dead.

Two detained journalists from NTV, Herbert Zziwa and Ronald Muwanga now released on bond, were charged with incitement to violence and malicious damage. Bobi Wine has now been charged with treason and illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, after being held incommunicado for 10 days. His detention, together with that of the journalists and other opposition politicians, including the Arua by-election winner, and on 23 August prominent opposition leader Kizza Besigye, is in violation of international human rights law.

Following the crackdown, on 21 August, one person was shot dead and several others injured after police and military officers shot at a group of protesters in a minibus in Kampala. Protests against the arrests have also been reported in other regions including Kamwokya, Gulu, Mityana, and Arua.

Law enforcement officers have shown no restraint in their use of force and military gear and weaponry in managing the protests, in violation of the protections afforded to freedom of expression and assembly in Article 29 of Uganda’s Constitution, as well as in the country’s regional and international obligations under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

We urge the Ugandan authorities to abide by their obligation to protect the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and end efforts to ignore and silence citizens’ legitimate concerns as incitement.

Charging media and politicians with false incitement to violence charges and using excessive force against those who exercise their right to speak out against this serves to shrink the space of free expression and access to information in the country. It shuts down open dialogue at a time when the country is in need of open public discussion” said Henry Maina, Director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa. “The vicious crackdown by police around this by-election shows an urgent need to address violations of press freedom, the right to protest, and the right to free speech more broadly. The government must take action to live up to its constitutional and international obligations, and end the abuse and arrest of those expressing opposition.”

ARTICLE 19 urges the Ugandan government to:

  • Unconditionally release and drop charges against all politicians, civilians, and journalists arrested and detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly in relation to the Arua by-election, and ensure any ill treatment of detainees at the hand of security forces is investigated and punished.
  • Ensure all arrested and detained persons are allowed access to proper medical care and legal representation.
  • Fully and effectively investigate the killing of Kuwuma and the protesters and ensure those responsible are brought to justice.
  • Ensure law enforcement officers are properly trained on the use of force in line with the country’s human rights commitments, and that they uphold the country’s obligations to prevent torture and ill-treatment in detention.
  • Take steps to create an enabling environment for journalists to perform their vital role in reporting on elections, and address spikes in attacks on journalists around elections.