Uganda: High Court reinstates banned radio programme in Fort Portal

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In what could become a landmark precedent in defence of freedoms of expression, speech and the media, the High Court in Fort Portal has ordered the immediate reinstatement of a controversial radio programme ordered off the airwaves by the police in January.

Justice Rugadya Atwooki also issued a restraining order against "any authority or person" from interfering with the "Twerwaneho" programme which was, before its suspension, running on Life FM.

The programme stirred controversy over its open criticism of government officials and activities as well as the traditional kingdom of Tooro.

On January 8, the Regional Police Commander, Mr Martin Abilu ordered the management of Life FM to "immediately and forthwith" suspend the programme from broadcast "until further notice."

He said "Twerwaneho" and another programme, "Ensonga ha Nsonga" were being used to "incite violence, defame innocent citizens and incite public anger against the government of the Republic of Uganda." On the same day he arrested panellists and presenters of the two programmes who were later charged in court for the same offences.

Those arrested included Stephen Rwagweri, Dan Rubombora, Prosper Businge, Gerald Kankya and Joram Bintamanya. The group later went to court to complain against the police action where they argued that as an institution police had no mandate to control or regulate the operations of independent media.

They summoned as witnesses key political and government officials including the Resident District Commissioner, Regional Police Commander and the Chairman of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) in Kabarole District who were believed to be the forces behind the police actions.

In his Friday ruling Justice Rugadya said the police action was not justified and was unconstitutional. He said the action violated Article 29(1) sub sections a & b of the Constitution, and section 7 of the Electronic Media Act (Cap 104) as amended.

The judge further ruled that the "suspension was inconsistent with what is acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society." He said it "infringes and violates the applicants' and the public's right to freedom of speech and expression and the freedom of the press."

He ruled that it was therefore, "null and void," and ordered that the programme be immediately reinstated and awarded costs to the applicants.

Lead petitioner and main programme sponsor, Rwagweri told Sunday Monitor that he was excited by the ruling. "I feel great," he said, "It's an eye opener to the local population here upcountry to know about their rights and how they can defend them. You know, it is almost unheard of to know that you can challenge a leader or authority [if you feel your rights have been violated] especially as regards the freedom to express yourself and the media."

"Twerwaneho" programme, a civil society-led discussion panel which tackles issues of good governance and holding leaders to account, was seen as critical of the government and local leaders.

It first aired on the local FM Voice of Tooro (VOT) also based in Fort Portal. In September 2007, a delegation of district leaders visited the VOT and put pressure on its management to stop hosting the show citing complaints by President Yoweri Museveni.

(The Monitor (Kampala), 16 March 2008)