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Govt ban on media coverage of FDC campaigns is insidiously autocratic

The government last week banned live coverage of  protest activities led by the Forum for Democratic Change, which insists that it was cheated out of victory in the February 18 elections.

Information minister Jim Muhwezi told the media that the ban was meant to enforce a court injunction issued by deputy chief justice Steven Kavuma, stopping the FDC defiance campaign for four months (See Govt bans live broadcasts, The Observer, May 6-7). The injunction was sought by deputy attorney general  Mwesigwa Rukutana.

Both Justice Kavuma’s court order and the government ban have been widely criticized by independent lawyers, diplomats, media and human rights activists, among others.

We, too, find the government ban inherently absurd and it seems to point to a broader tendency within government to lock out critical views.

First and foremost, the controversial court order did not mention media houses; so, for the government to stretch interpretation of the order to such levels is simply wrong.

It is also wrong for the minister to suggest that by covering the proscribed activities, the media is promoting the activities. By their orientation, serious journalists are supposed to report what is happening regardless of whether it pleases or angers the rulers or the citizenry.

What the government is doing is a flagrant abuse of court in a bid to subvert journalistic practice so as to control what the public can know.

It is particularly intriguing that this government should purport to have the highest regard for court orders. Ugandans have not forgotten how the government ignored a court order stopping the impeachment of Kampala lord mayor Erias Lukwago. It deployed police officers who brutalised a lawyer sent to deliver the injunction.

Fortunately for Ugandans, by then, the government had not banned reporting of people defying court orders.

The issues at stake in both the Justice Kavuma court order and the General Muhwezi media ban are covered under Article 29 of the Constitution, which, among others, protects press freedom and the right to peaceful protest.

Admittedly, rights are not absolute, but as court has pronounced itself before, any restrictions must be justifiable in a democratic society. The latest restrictions are insidiously autocratic and unjustifiable.

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