October 17, 2017 - Updated on October 20, 2017

Uganda: Police harass newspapers over stories about parliamentary expenses

Ugandan lawmakers gather in the parliament to debate a move to change the constitution to extend the president's rule, in Kampala, Uganda September 21, 2017. REUTERS/James Akena
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed to learn that two leading Ugandan newspaper editors were summoned and questioned by the police yesterday and could face baseless libel charges designed to deter the media from covering a controversial bill to abolish a constitutional limit on the president’s age.

The two editors, Charles Bichachi of the Daily Monitor (which is owned by the Nation Media Group) and Richard Kintu of Red Pepper, a tabloid, were interrogated for several hours at the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) about their coverage of expenses reportedly allocated for parliamentary consultation with voters about the bill.

They have been summoned for further questioning today and could in theory be facing up to a year in prison on a possible charge of “libel and offensive communication” in connection their stories about the proposed expenses, which were published on 12 October.

The newspapers reported that sums ranging from six million to more than seven million Ugandan shillings (142,000 to 170,000 euros) had been earmarked for parliamentarians so that they could conduct consultations with the public about the bill.

The complaint against the newspapers was brought by parliamentarians, who said that, ever since the stories appeared, they have been hounded on social networks by voters demanding that they return any money received.

The Daily Monitor’s lawyer responded that there were no legal grounds for charges because a newspaper could not be held responsible for actions by others, in this case comments posted on social networks.

“This interrogation of the editors of two very popular Ugandan newspapers is a message designed to deter all the other media, a message that comes down to saying: don’t cover this constitutional amendment too closely,” said Clea Kahn-Sriber, the head of RSF’s Africa desk.

“This is a public consultation funded by public money, so these newspapers are just doing their job by informing taxpayers how their tax contributions are being used. We ask the Ugandan authorities to respect press freedom and to stop using this kind of pressure against media.”

According to the constitution, a presidential candidate cannot be any older than 75. The bill to abolish this limit is actively supported by President Yoweri Museweni, who is currently aged 73, but has given rise to a great deal of controversy among the public and parliamentarians, some of whom have come to blows.

Coverage of these events already led to the imposition of restrictions on the broadcast media last month.

Uganda is ranked 112th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Its media are often pressured by the authorities, who try to restrict coverage of stories linked to the government and opposition.