Criminal charges and the closure of several radio stations over alleged incitement to violence in Kampala have sparked a debate about the limits of free speech in Uganda.
The Uganda Broadcasting Council (UBC) silenced four Luganda* radio stations during three days of riots in September 2009 sparked by the government's refusal to allow the king of Buganda, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi, from travelling to a district within his kingdom.
UBC accused the broadcasters, one of which has since gone back on air, of "inciting violence and hatred" during the riots. According to the government, 20 rioters and seven bystanders died.
Criminal charges have been brought against several guests and members of the public who telephoned the stations, while a handful of radio presenters have been questioned by the police's Criminal Investigation Department.
Criticism of the UBC's decision was swift and harsh, with media rights groups saying the government was “not fooling anyone” with its sweeping measures to crack down on critical media.
Opinion in the country, however, is more divided; while some feel shutting down the stations was the desperate action of an unpopular government, others felt the tone of some of the programmes was indeed inflammatory.
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"The stations were merely expressing their support for the Kabaka; one of these stations, CBS [Central Broadcasting Services], is owned by the Buganda Kingdom, so inevitably they will side with Buganda in any debate," said Ssemujju Nganda, a senior editor at The Observer, an independent newspaper. "The government knew this would always be the case when they gave them the licence to broadcast."
Nganda did, however, admit that in the heat of the moment there may have been “excesses” by radio presenters.
Police documents charging Elias Lukwago, Member of Parliament for Kampala Central, with inciting violence after a 9 September talk-show on Akaboozi Kubiri, accuse the MP of making statements implying that it would be "incumbent or desirable to do acts calculated to lead to the destruction or damage of property".
"Those of you who are working in markets, shopping arcades, canteens, restaurants, those of you seated idle on verandas and those of you who are tending their gardens, what have you done so far about all the challenges that have hit us before? Will you wait until you are hit directly?" reads part of an English translation of a police transcript of Lukwago's appearance on the show. "Are you waiting for His Majesty to be attacked and in his palace?"
|If there is anything they think was inciting [violence], then it was not by design|
According to Godfrey Mutabazi, chairman of the UBC, presenters, guests and talk-show callers were indeed inciting hatred among the Baganda, much of it directed towards people from western Uganda, who are perceived to have been favoured above other ethnic groups during the presidency of Yoweri Museveni, who hails from that region.
"Sometimes the messages are coded and other times they were blatantly inciting violence and hatred," he said. "I had no choice other than to suspend broadcasting by these radio stations – otherwise we could have been dealing with a situation like Rwanda, where Radio Mille Collines was able to incite thousands into ethnic violence that resulted in the genocide."
In addition, Mutabazi said, the stations were actively encouraging Baganda in general to defy the police's orders and travel to Kayunga.
"After the police advised the Kabaka and his supporters not to travel to Kayunga for security reasons, CBS became like a mobiliser, openly defying the police, urging supporters of the king to go against the police directive and head there anyway," he added.
The UBC was unable to provide IRIN with copies of transcripts from the broadcasts in question.
For their part, the stations' managers have vehemently denied any of the charges made against them. "We did not make any broadcast that could qualify as inciting violence; we were reporting events as they unfolded," said CBS chief executive officer Kaaya Kavuma. "We had reporters all over the place and they were telling us the reality on the ground; if that is inciting violence, then this is a matter of interpretation."
However, some members of Kampala's listening public disagree. "These radio stations are insulting even when there are no riots; during the violence the programmes definitely became more threatening to non-Baganda," said Joseph Tushabe, a shop owner from western Uganda in the capital. "I am sure some of the rioters were responding to the attitudes they heard on the radio."
However, according to Bogere Masembe, CEO of Ssuubi FM, there was no plan to incite violence. "If there was anything they think was inciting, then it was not by design," he said.
One thing most analysts agree on is that the UBC was excessive in its decision to take the stations off the airwaves completely.
Photo: Buganda Post
|The Kabaka of Buganda, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II|
"Whatever the presenters said, there are ways of dealing with it within the law without using such arbitrary methods as closing stations down," Nganda said.
CBS's Kavuma accused the UBC of failing to follow the rule of law in the decision to close down the stations; the council, he said, broke into the station's transmission system with the aid of the Uganda People's Defence Forces. Ssuubi FM's Masembe said his station was attacked in a similar manner.
"The Broadcasting Council wrote to us two days after we were closed down; we were not given any hearing or a warning," he said. "When you break the law, there are institutions that are supposed to interpret the law; it was high-handedness."
"One of the complaints we keep hearing from government is that the presenters are not professional journalists, but you cannot criminalize lack of professionalism," said Peter Mwesige, an independent media consultant and one of the founders of Uganda's Daily Monitor newspaper.
"We don't see the UBC on a day-to-day basis regulating station programming; they seem to exclusively focus on sanctions," he added.
Mwesige noted, however, that there was a need for greater professionalism in political talk-radio in Uganda, as without it, broadcasts could turn dangerous.
"There is a legitimate case for greater professionalism, for proper research and better moderation of talk shows," he said. "But the way to do this is to engage with radio stations' management in order to achieve this, not to shut them down."
*Buganda is a kingdom in south-central Uganda inhabited by the Baganda people, who speak Luganda.