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March 29, 2022

ABA ROLI and the Uganda Christian University held a Public Dialogue on Status of Freedom of Expression in Uganda

Freedom of expression in Uganda is guaranteed by Article 29 of the 1995 Constitution. Article 43 of the same Constitution however, places limitations on this freedom. Over the past several years, Ugandans have increasingly witnessed a regressive trend in the enjoyment of their rights to vocalize their concerns and views or to freely assemble especially on issues related to governance, corruption, mal-administration, poor service delivery, human rights, rule of law and access to justice, among others. This trend has permeated all segments of society.

University students have not been spared from the consequences of free speech and assembly and as such faced, on a number of occasions, the wrath of security agencies whenever they stage peaceful protests to express their dissatisfaction with services or grievances regarding fees, and other administrative actions that impact on their welfare. Many of the protests across universities stem from matters such as arbitrary increase of tuition fees, missing marks, and a host of other welfare concerns. 

Amidst the discussion analyzing the state of Freedom of Expression in Uganda today, university students had the opportunity to express their grievances and engage UCU administration in a public dialogue organized by the American Bar Association (ABA), in partnership with their School of Law. The half day dialogue took place on March 11, 2022, under the theme “The right to Freedom of Expression and Assembly in Uganda: Are we moving forward or backwards?” It featured a keynote address from Dr. Peter Mutesasira, the Dean Faculty of Law, UCU and discussion by panelists who included Dr. Livingstone Ssewanyana, the Executive Director-Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI)/ Special UN Rapporteur on Human Rights; Mr. Ben Mwine, a media personality; and Ms. Cindy Chemutai, a student representative from UCU.

As a preamble, the over 350 law students watched a documentary titled ‘Targeted’, developed by the African Institute for Investigative Journalism (AIIJ). It features stories of persecution faced by journalists who covered the 2021 Uganda presidential elections. The day’s moderator Solomon Sserwanja, and Executive Director of the AIIJ, noted the importance of the subject matter of the Public Dialogue, given the current times of COVID-19 restrictions, political turbulence and rapid decline in freedoms of expression and assembly.

In his keynote address, Dr. Mutesasira, discussed at great length the impact of COVID-19 restrictions adopted by the Government of Uganda. This included strict lockdowns and prolonged restrictions on movement, gatherings, a mandated curfew, closures of non-essential businesses, severely affecting the economy and the freedom of expression and assembly of Ugandans. The 2021 electoral period (pre, during, post) was characterized by heavily controlled and restricted media and internet freedoms. “Whereas the COVID-19 measures were well intended, they were to some extent misused to curtail the right to freedom of expression and assembly,” he remarked. 

While reacting to the keynote address, Dr. Ssewanyana first applauded the ABA for their work in supporting the realization of human rights. He called on participants to remember that the rights to freedom of expression and assembly are not absolute rights but are subject to restrictions and that Article 43 allows the State to depart as long as the departure does not amount to political persecution. However, he noted that the law was applied selectively given that the country was currently experiencing the effects of a repressive apparatus that does not create a liberal mind to demand for accountability.

Relatedly, Mr. Ben Mwine noted that although rights are provided under the law, in the same breath laws can be created to curtail those same rights as evidenced from the COVID-19 restrictions. “The way freedom of expression is conducted in Uganda clearly indicates that we are going backwards”, he added.

Ms. Sylvia Chebet agreed that students need to be involved in changing how laws relating to freedom of expression and assembly are exercised, but this can only happen when the University grants them the platform to express themselves, starting with the need to voice their opinions related to student welfare issues. Restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly on students who are expected to become future leaders means that the change expected from them cannot be made, she said.

The public dialogue also explored the crackdown on civil society organizations. This crackdown has created a chilling effect on their operations and limited the ability to defend the rights of the poor and vulnerable; the rise of social media as an alternative tool to access information and as a space to exercise freedom of expression; the responsibilities that come with these rights and the various ‘civilized’ ways through which students can exercise freedom of expression and assembly without being violent, such as dialogue and writing, among others.

Students were accorded the opportunity to react and share their thoughts on the practice of freedom of expression and assembly at UCU. Many agreed that although there were platforms like student bodies through which this could be done, there were limited feedback mechanisms or platforms for engagement in place, which needed to be addressed. Issues of missing marks took center stage in their commentary with many expressing disappointment in the lack of response for periods exceeding a year or more. At the end of the dialogue, the Dean and the students agreed to regularly convene assemblies, similar to the dialogue, where such grievances could be discussed to find lasting solutions.

Learn more about ABA ROLI’s work across Africa.