The situation of freedom of expression (FOE) and civic space in East Africa has progressively deteriorated over the past few years, with a marked increase in incidents of intimidation, attacks on the media, and excessive government controls over non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media. This is a finding from a new report by ABA ROLI about freedom of expression in Uganda and Tanzania. The report finds that these restrictions and incidents of intimidation increase the security risk for human rights defenders (HRDs), members of the media and civil society organizations (CSOs) advocating for greater human rights protection, accountability, and transparency.
ABA ROLI commissioned the recently launched study, Freedom of Expression and Civic Space in East Africa: Emerging Trends & Patterns in Uganda and Tanzania to assess the trends, practices, challenges, and opportunities on freedom of expression and civic space in both Uganda and Tanzania. The study focuses on developments in both countries over a two-year period from 2020-2021 and unearths common practices and trends across the two jurisdictions. ABA ROLI launched the report on October 23 in Banjul, the Gambia, on the side-lines of the 73rd Ordinary session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).
This study was supported by ABA ROLI’s program, Promoting and Protecting Freedom of Expression in East Africa—which launched in 2019. The program focuses on supporting local civil society partners in both Uganda and Tanzania. For three years, the implementing consortium has employed an array of approaches including strategic litigation—the provision of direct legal services to HRDs or others whose basic rights have been violated—and advocacy and research for the protection of these fundamental rights. This consortium includes the Network for Public Interest Lawyers, the East African Network of University Clinics, the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Tanzania, Tanzania Human Rights Defenders, the Pan-African Lawyers Union, and the International Center for Not-Profit Law.
A brief overview of the situation in the region described in the report reveals the emerging trends of increasing regulations that constrain civic spaces. In Tanzania, the shrinking civic space is underpinned by a restrictive legal framework that has caused a suppression of freedom of expression. Laws such as the Anti-Money Laundering (Amendment) Act 2022 and the Written Laws (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 2) Act 2021, amongst others, were enacted to curtail the enjoyment of civic freedom by dissenting voices. The restrictive legislation was also used to silence critical voices, with some CSOs subsequently facing suspension and or closure. This was followed up by harassment and physical attacks, unlawful detention, torture, arbitrary arrests and extra judicial killings of opposition politicians. The government simultaneously used regulations, policies, and authoritarian means to restrict media rights and freedom of expression through arbitrary bans on media companies and practicing journalists, revocation of licenses of media companies from operating, and newly imposed media license fees.
In Uganda, since the pre-electoral period in the country the relationship between government and civil society continues to deteriorate. The government began using various tactics to limit or completely halt NGO activity connected to sensitive matters around elections, judicial advocacy, and accountability; and NGO interventions to protect both communities and the environment from invasive extractive industry and large development projects. At the end of 2021, the government regulator of NGOs announced a blanket suspension measure against 54 NGOs citing compliance-related matters. Also in 2021, the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) was suspended for similar reasons. The DGF’s inability to operate had a debilitating effect on its more than 73 grantees (13 state and 60 non-state partners)—the majority dedicated to the area of rule of law, human rights, access to justice, transparency, and accountability.
The effect of these actions is a growing silence by civil society and vocal critics of government policies and practices. The report finds that a combination of suspensions, freezing of assets, and organizational de-registration creates an unprecedented gap in civic spaces that is previously unknown in Uganda. An illustrative example of the relationship between the Ugandan government and civil society can be summarized by a statement from Uganda’s Attorney General in March 2022, when he warned the public to be cautious when interacting with civil society groups. Without providing details, he accused several civil society groups of threatening the stability of Uganda and urged Ugandans to treat them as “enemies of Uganda.” The operating space for civil society to fulfil its traditional role is reduced by the combination of recent developments and practices in the region. At the national level, civil society grows increasingly isolated and marginalized—between expanding government control, reduced external support, and growing intolerance from security forces.
The report’s launch aimed to provide the ACHPR with an opportunity to be updated on the emerging trends and patterns of freedom of expression/civic space in Uganda and Tanzania, as identified in the study. It also sought to raise the awareness of the ACHPR’s special procedures on the situation in Uganda and Tanzania in order to evoke further action. In this context, the discussion addressed various sub-themes, including the identification of rights violations pertaining to civic space (both in law and practice) and political, legal, judicial, and institutional environment analysis at the national level. The panelists also highlighted coping mechanisms to address the shrinking space by the stakeholders such as the HRDs, the media, and development partners; and to identify opportunities, lessons learned, and make recommendations on how Tanzania and Uganda can employ strategic actions at the national and regional levels to address the rapidly shrinking space.
The launch event for the report was accompanied by a panel discussion featuring human rights practitioners from Uganda and Tanzania and international partners such as the Pan-African Lawyers Union. Together they discussed the opportunities and challenges of using the regional courts to protect FOE. Also, in attendance, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law provided an analysis of emerging legislation in the region. Serving as Country Rapporteur for Uganda, ACHPR Commissioner Hon. Mudford Zachariah Mwandenga made remarks at the event. congratulated the organizers and the initiative behind the regional study, and further expressed his office’s interest and commitment to fulfilling its mandate of strengthening human rights in the region. Prior to the 73rd session of the ACHPR, a resolution on Uganda was adopted by the NGO Forum, where several of the study’s recommendations were captured in the resolution.