An opinion column in Uganda’s leading independent newspaper suggesting parallels between President Yoweri Museveni and former Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos led to criminal libel charges against two journalists today, according to local media reports.
A magistrate in the capital, Kampala, charged Angelo Izama, a senior reporter, and Henry Ochieng, editor of the Sunday Monitor news magazine, based on a complaint from Museveni, who claims he was defamed in a December 19 column, Monitor Publications lawyer Anne Abeja Muhwezi told CPJ.
Izama’s column, quoting opposition figures and academics, largely discusses the risk of political violence during next year’s general elections. But the complaint focuses on a portion of the piece that draws similarities between Museveni’s Uganda and the Phillipines under Marcos, according to CPJ research. Museveni, who took power in Uganda a few months before Philippine protests ousted Marcos in 1986, is expected to seek a fourth term in next year’s general elections.
Izama and Ochieng were released on bail of 100,000 Ugandan shillings (US$50) pending trial on February 25, according to Muhwezi. Criminal libel is one of several Ugandan penal code statutes, including sedition and the promotion of sectarianism, whose constitutional basis is under review by the country’s highest court. Ugandan courts have typically postponed action in such cases while the Supreme Court case is pending.
“If anything proves that a government is authoritarian, it’s jailing journalists who raise questions about the government,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “It’s regrettable that the magistrate charged Angelo Izama and Henry Ochieng with criminal libel. It’s time for Uganda to join the ranks of democracies by eliminating criminal defamation statutes.”
Izama told CPJ he was first interrogated about the column on December 22 and was subsequently told to report to the police “media crimes” division at least once a week. Ochieng was first summoned on January 11. Both journalists spent two hours at the media crimes division today before being driven to court in a police vehicle, Muhwezi said.
Izama and Ochieng are among several Monitor journalists facing criminal charges in connection with their coverage, according to CPJ research. Sedition charges also hang over radio journalists Robert Kalundi Sserumaga and Betty Nambooze, while a government ban remains on popular debate programs and Central Broadcasting Services, the station of the traditional kingdom of the Baganda, Uganda’s largest ethnic group, since last September.