On Kabuleta detention and a 12-year-old chat

Sunday July 21 2019


By Bernard Tabaire

One early evening in September 2007, a long-serving minister summoned at very short notice editors from what he said were the four leading newspapers in Uganda. He wanted an off-the-record chat in his office. I represented Daily Monitor, where I worked at the time in a senior editorial position.
The context was the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) scheduled for Kampala in November. He said that the government was frustrated by the media, and that he was resisting pressure from fellow ministers to revise laws and make them more punitive against journalists. After Chogm, he warned, certain things may not be tolerated. People in power are not fools, having assumed that power through fire and keeping it that long. They could make life uncomfortable for the media.
That out of the way, the minister told us in a quiet but firm voice that for “Number One”, the no-go areas for journalistic reporting were the military, his family, and his power. Ominously, our host added that journalists should be wary of making someone’s power appear ridiculous.
Given the recent arrest of Mr Joseph Kabuleta for offensive communication against President Museveni, and that of Dr Stella Nyanzi last year, it is clear it is not only journalists who must not touch the First Family, but any other Ugandan.
Thou shalt not disturb the peace and quiet of the President and, by extension, any member of his family.
Thou shalt not in the process make his power look ridiculous.
You break the commandments you pay.
The government could get quite busy arresting people as we head into the 2021 electioneering period. There is rage in the country, often expressed on social media. In 2007, it made sense for a government minister to call in a bunch of editors from a few newspapers and browbeat them inside a room. Now, with social media, the landscape is vast and far different.
There is simply no newspaper that would publish articles with the salty, if scabrous, language that Dr Nyanzi and Mr Kabuleta have used against the presidential family. On social media, well, each has an own space to vent and get wildly cheered on. The cyber fame (or is it notoriety) can be intoxicating in the sense that it demands ever-hotter language with each succeeding post. The beast must be fed.
Short of shutting down social media, the government has decided to pick off “ringleaders” one at a time to use them as an example to others who may not know the limits to what they can say. I wouldn’t go after anyone’s mother in criticising the son’s or daughter’s policies. And especially not when the mother is not around to defend herself.
I do not, however, understand why the President should be protected from criticism and insult. It comes with the territory. Not all 40 million Ugandans should like the leader because some of his policies and promises may and do fall short in the estimation of some individuals and sections of society. Let them fire away. It is free expression, especially as interpreted in the 2004 Supreme Court judgement that annulled the false news law.
Besides, the Constitutional Court annulled the law on sedition in 2010. A part of that law, which the government used often, said: “A seditious intention shall be an intention … to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the person of the President, the government as by law established or the Constitution…”
The government threatened an appeal, but has never followed through. Guess what happened the very next year though: The Computer Misuse Act was enacted. Its section 25 is the one now widely used to shut down dissent online. It says: “Any person who willfully and repeatedly uses electronic communication to disturb or attempts to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication whether or not a conversation ensues commits a misdemeanour and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding 24 currency points or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both.”
What is legitimate or illegitimate communication? Vague provisions such as this allow the authorities wide latitude, which they exploit, to go after often-acerbic critics of President Museveni and his officials. The section exists to shield the powerful, not to help the powerless speak up freely. The Uganda Law Society is challenging the constitutionality of the computer misuse law’s sections 24 and 25, which create the offence of cyber harassment.
That law needs to go the way of sedition and false news. I can’t wish the law society success enough.