Yesterday, a reader reminded me that Ethiopia is not the only country in East Africa cracking down on the press in ways that are inappropriate and scary. Andrew Mwenda, a popular and controversial radio host in Kampala, Uganda, was recently arrested and charged with “sedition” for making comments about a possible Ugandan government role in the death of southern Sudanese leader John Garang. He was released on a 5m shilling (about $2800) bail after offering his plea:
“I cannot be guilty of my constitutional right to practise free speech as guaranteed by the Constitution. I plead not guilty”
Mwenda’s employer, KFM Radio, was briefly banned, but returned to the air today. Mwenda potentially faces a 5m shilling fine, or up to five years in prison if convicted of sedition. His bond was posted by a number of officials from the company which owns KFM and The Daily Monitor, Uganda’s most prominent independent newspaper.
(The Monitor has an excellent and confrontational interview with Museveni’s Press Secretary and a prominent Ugandan lawyer in their August 17th issue on the subject of press freedom in Uganda.)
Mwenda evidently crossed a line when he speculated that Uganda’s president Museveni was responsible for John Garang’s death. His comments, in part:
You [Museveni] mismanaged Garang’s security. Are you saying it is Monitor that caused the death of Garang? Garang’s security was put in danger by your own Government. First of all on a junk helicopter, second at night, third passing through Imatong hills where [LRA rebel leader Joseph] Kony is.
“Are you aware that your government killed Garang? I can never withdraw it [that statement]. I would say the Government of Uganda, out of incompetence, led to or caused the death of John Garang.”
There has been widespread speculation in Southern Sudan and Uganda that Garang’s death in a helicopter crash on July 30th, shortly after he accepted a position as Sudan’s vice president. It’s worth noting that plane and helicopter crashes have a special political significance in East Africa – a plane crash which killed Rwandan President Habyarimana and Burundian President Ntaryamira, sparking the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, is believed by some to have been a political assasination.
Alleging concern about possible ethnic violence, Museveni warned Ugandan newspapers that speculation about Garang’s death in print would not be tolerated. Mwenda’s arrest evidently signifies that he means business.
The reader who alerted me to the Ugandan story pointed out that a sedition law in the US would likely put a wide range of pundits into jail for a long time. I’m not entirely clear on whether my friend thought this would be a step forward or backwards… :-)
Update – CSM has an excellent story on the subject.