31 August 2009

Uganda: Newspaper's cartoon of president draws interrogation

press release

A Ugandan newspaper's critical caricature of President Yoweri Museveni led police to interrogate three journalists today on allegations of sedition, according to a defense attorney and local journalists.

For four hours, 10 officers of the Media Crimes Department of Uganda's Criminal Investigations Directorate questioned the editorial decisions of Managing Editor Andrew Mwenda, Editor Charles Bichachi, and Assistant News Editor Joseph Were of the bimonthly newsmagazine The Independent, according to defense lawyer Bob Kasango. Were was told to return for further questioning on Saturday, while Mwenda and Bichachi were ordered to return on Monday, according to local journalists.

The constitutionality of Uganda's sedition statute is in question. Uganda's Supreme Court is reviewing the statute, and all prosecutions under the law have been suspended pending its ruling.

Officers pressed the trio over the motive and production of an August 21 cartoon spoofing Museveni's controversial decision to reappoint members of the embattled electoral commission to supervise the 2011 general election. The Supreme Court ruled that in the 2005 election the electoral commission did not adhere to its own rules and allowed irregularities including bribery, ballot-stuffing, and voter disenfranchisement.

A formal sedition charge from 2005 already hangs over Mwenda, one of 21 criminal counts that Uganda's best-known political editor and 2008 CPJ awardee is battling in court.

“The government has targeted Andrew Mwenda and others with sedition charges in the past as a way to retaliate for critical coverage. They are doing it again--but have even less basis now because the law is being reviewed,” CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes said. “Police should drop all charges.”

Criminal prosecutions of independent journalists--particularly those working for Uganda's largest independent newspaper, Monitor--are on the rise against the backdrop of mounting national tensions and hostile presidential rhetoric toward the press, CPJ research shows.

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