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“Sedition” in Uganda – more attacks on press freedom in East Africa

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.

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  1. Dhaka: Bangladesh [March 5, 2009]

    After one week of attack on the office of Weekly Blitz newspaper by armed hooligans belong to ruling party in Bangladesh, members of law enforcing agencies are reluctant in taking any action, as some high ups in the government and police administration instructed the investigation officer not to ‘harass’ any of the accused in this case as they belong to the ruling party.

    On February 22, 35-40 armed terrorists belonging to the ruling party, led by Ruhul Amin attacked the office of Blitz newspaper. They instructed the caretaker named Anwar of the commercial center named Skylark Point [where the Blitz office is located] to lock the outside gate and continued their notorious actions in the broad day light for hours in presence of members of law enforcing and various intelligence agencies. The CCTV of the building was also put switched off by the management of the building as the attackers were influential and notorious goons belonging to Bangladesh Awami League.

    Despite lodging of a case more than 5 days back [Case No. 65, under section 143, 448, 323, 342, 384, 380, 427 and 506], members of law enforcing agencies in Bangladesh are showing extreme reluctance in arresting any of the attackers, mostly belonging to the ruling party, who attacked the office of Weekly Blitz on Sunday [February 22, 2009], physically assaulted the editor and other members, abused the female staffs and looted laptop and other valuables in a broad day light, in presence of One Shamim from DGFI [Directorate General of Forces Intelligence]. Members of law enforcing agencies were witnessing the incident silently as the attackers were mostly activists and members of the ruling party in Bangladesh.

    Others who were in the gang are identified as Ruhul Amin, Shintu, Liton, Yunus, Anwar, Siraj, Lavlu, Kajol etc. According to police sources, most of them were thugs belonging to the ruling party.

    At 10am Sunday, local time, internationally-acclaimed journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, was attacked as he was working in the office of his newspaper, Weekly Blitz, by a gang of thugs belonging to Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League. Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is now under medical treatment for eye, neck, and other injuries those he suffered in the attack. The renewed violence marks the first against him since he was abducted by Bangladesh’s dreaded Rapid Action Battalion in March 2008. It may be mentioned here that, the military backed interim regime withdrew police protection from the residence of the Blitz editor in May last year.

    A large group of armed hooligans, co-led by one Shamim introducing himself to be an official of DGFI stormed Blitz premises and attacked newspaper staff until they found the editor. They locked the editor in a room and continued various forms of physical assaults thus abusing him to be a ‘Mossad Agent’, ‘Israeli Agent’ etc. Culprits are continuing to occupy the Blitz office.

    Meanwhile, one of the leaders of the attacker’s gang named Ruhul Amin is continuing to give threats to the Weekly Blitz editors and other members of the newspaper on immediately withdrawing the case. In a phone call, Ruhul Amin said, ‘I give you people only 24 hours time. Withdraw the case; otherwise our next target is Choudhury’s residence.’

    Earlier a person named Advocate Shintu, claiming to be the advisor of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, phoned the Blitz editor and demanded TK. 500,000 [US$ 8,400 approximately] as extortion. Shintu also told the Blitz editor that, he is one of the decision makers helping Sheikh Hasina in appointing her cabinet colleagues.

    Weekly Blitz tried to find the reason behind reluctance of police in taking any action against the culprits as to why the attackers are yet to be arrested. On condition of anonymity, a source in police said, ‘We have already become captive in the grips of the political government and its cadres. We can watch crime, but cannot take actions. Because, if we take any action against those party activists, then we shall face various forms of departmental harassments and humiliations.’

    An official of Weekly Blitz contacted some of the senior officials in Bangladesh Police, including the inspector general as well as Commissioner of Police [Dhaka] and informed them about lodging of the case on February 22, 2009. Copy of the FIR [First Information Report] was also sent to those officials with the appeal of initiating immediate investigation into the matter and arresting the culprits.

    But, none of these senior officials are taking any action in this regard. It is learnt that, several influential leaders belong to the ruling party are continuing to call the police officers asking the reason of recording the case. They are also warning the police officers of severe consequence if any of the accused in the case are arrested or interrogated.

    When contacted, an officer on duty at Paltan Police Station told Weekly Blitz that, they have specific instruction of neither investigating the case nor arresting anyone as the accused are from the ruling party.

    Since installation of government led by Bangladesh Awami League, reign of terror is established throughout the country by musclemen and hooligans belonging to student’s wing, youth wing, volunteer’s wing and other pro-ruling party elements in Bangladesh.

    Weekly Blitz editor and other staffs of the newspaper have made an appeal to the media community in the country and in the world for their kind and immediate help in this regard.

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