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(Kampala) - The Ugandan government should immediately allow radio stations and programming that it closed down after protests in Kampala last week to return to the air and should investigate the arrest and abuse of a prominent journalist, Robert Kalundi Sserumaga, Human Rights Watch said today. The government's Broadcasting Council has arbitrarily shut down entire stations as well as some programs, without providing adequate explanations or an opportunity to challenge the decisions.

Members of the media faced serious obstacles while commenting and reporting on the unfolding events. After Sserumaga appeared on the talk show "Kibazo on Friday" on Wavah Broadcasting Station on September 11, 2009, he was detained by men in plain clothes, assaulted repeatedly, and eventually turned over to police and interrogated. On September 15, he was charged with six counts of sedition and released on bail.

"Sserumaga's experience follows a pattern in Uganda of arrests and physical abuse by unidentified men in unmarked cars, and no one has ever been held to account," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to conduct a thorough investigation into this episode and find out who is responsible."

Sserumaga was assaulted by men in civilian clothes, who forced him into an unmarked car. The men did not identify themselves or the reason for the arrest. During transport, they beat and choked Sserumaga and at one point gouged his eyes when he tried to defend himself. He said the men took him to an illegal place of detention in Kireka, a neighborhood of Kampala where at least 23 others who had also been arrested during the protests were being held. The manner of his arrest is consistent with a pattern of abuses, documented by Human Rights Watch, most often carried out by ad hoc militias who collaborate with or draw their personnel from regular police and the military.

The following morning, those holding Sserumaga again physically assaulted him. On the afternoon of September 12, they brought Sserumaga to the Central Police Station in Kampala, and police interrogated him about the content of the talk show. A Human Rights Watch researcher visited Sserumaga and observed injuries consistent with his description of the abuse. Sserumaga spent two nights in the hospital receiving treatment for his injuries before being charged and released on September 15.

The protests on September 10 and 11 were started by youth from the Baganda ethnic group after the police prevented a delegation from Uganda's Buganda kingdom from visiting the eastern district of Kayunga. Police and military quickly responded with tear gas and live ammunition; rioters blocked roads, lit fires, and threw rocks.

The Broadcasting Council is mandated by the 2000 Electronic Media Act to "exercise control and supervise broadcasting activities." That law sets out minimum broadcasting standards, which prohibit broadcasters from distorting facts or creating public insecurity or violence. Broadcasters must also present programs that are "balanced to ensure harmony." The laws do not lay out the procedures or describe how council determinations that standards have been violated may be challenged.

After the council shut down four Luganda-language radio stations without warning, the council sent letters to some station managers stating that their broadcasts had incited the public to violence, but the letters did not specify which standards the stations had violated or what part of their broadcast was in violation. Producers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they had actively tried to present all sides of the issues and had invited various government officials to be interviewed, but they had not appeared.

The radio station officials told Human Rights Watch that there was no warning or prior notification of the shutdowns, which were carried out by force. For example, government agents broke into the transmission room of Radio Ssuubi, a youth radio station, and confiscated the studio transmission link. All four stations are still off the air. Recent news reports quote the council chairperson as saying that the stations must wait until the government conducts and concludes an investigation into their conduct before they can appeal their suspensions. It is unclear how long that will take.

The council also forcefully suspended some programming on other stations. Radio Simba was not permitted to broadcast the program "Gasimbagane ne bannamawulire," hosted by Peter Kibazo. Kibazo's other program on WBS was suspended. The council also told National Broadcasting Station directors to stop showing television footage of the police response to the riots.

Freedom of expression and of the media, are guaranteed by article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, and article 29 of the Ugandan Constitution. Restrictions on freedom of expression to prevent direct incitement to violence are permissible under international law, but must be the least-restrictive act possible to prevent such incitement and must not be arbitrary. That means that those affected should be granted a fair hearing to challenge any such restriction.

"The Broadcasting Council should stop muzzling independent reporting," said Gagnon. "It needs to prove that a station was directly inciting violence before it can go to the extreme length of shutting it down. Those stations forced to shut down should immediately be allowed to resume operating."

Background on recent events

The recent violence was set off by a planned visit by the king of the Baganda, known as the kabaka, to National Youth Day on Saturday, September 12 in Kayunga district. In anticipation of that visit, a delegation of Baganda leadership attempted to visit the area two days before the event and was stopped by police. People of Banyala ethnicity in Kayunga reject the kabaka's authority.

Police responded to the demonstrations with live ammunition and severe beatings of protesters and onlookers. After two days of unrest, at least 21 people were killed, mostly hit by stray police fire, and scores more were injured. Protests turned violent in some areas, and protesters burned a police station in Natete on September 11. According to police reports, at least 663 people were arrested during the two days, and most remain in custody.

The role of cultural leaders such as the kabaka in Uganda has been the source of debate historically. President Milton Obote outlawed all cultural leaders in 1966, but President Museveni permitted them to return in 1995. Under the constitution, cultural leaders are barred from politics, but they still wield influence over their communities.

The crime of sedition has been challenged in the Constitutional Court in the case of Eastern Africa Media Institute and Andrew Mwenda vs. the Attorney General in 2005. Sserumaga's case cannot go forward to trial until the court has ruled on that matter. During Museveni's presidency, at least six journalists have been charged with sedition. Only one was convicted, in 1995, and sentenced to one year in prison.

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