Journalists renew call to scrap defamation law

Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda (HRNJ) has renewed efforts to have the law on criminal defamation scrapped. This follows the recent conviction and sentencing of Central Broadcasting Service (CBS FM) journalist Ronald Ssembuusi for the offence.

Mr Ssembuusi was on Friday ordered by Kalangala Magistrate’s Court to pay a fine of UShs 100,000  within a month or face one year in jail.

He was last week found guilty of defaming former Kalangala LC5 chairman Daniel Kikoola in 2011, after Kikoola named the politician as a suspect in a case of missing solar panels donated to the district.

Grade One Magistrate Kenneth Gimugu ordered the journalist to pay UShs 500,000 to the complainant and the other half to the court.

HRNJ-Uganda’s coordinator Robert Sempala says the law on criminal defamation is used to silence critical reporting and is a huge obstacle to media freedom.

“This conviction and sentencing has hampered Ssembuusi, at only 25 years, in early stages of his career with a criminal record that may preclude him from practicing his journalism profession without fear; and is likely to shun critical reporting,” Mr Sempala says.

He adds: “Today, HRNJ-Uganda announces its resolve to fight the law of criminal defamation and calls on all stakeholders to join in this fight.”

Lawyer and media freedom activist Peter Magelah says although the fine was fair, not many journalists can afford such money.

“It can have same effect of scaring journalists from reporting on such matters,” he says.

Section 179 of the Penal Code Act states that, “Any person who, by print, writing, painting, effigy or by any means otherwise than solely by gestures, spoken words or other sounds, unlawfully publishes any defamatory matter concerning another person, with intent to defame that other person, commits the misdemeanour termed libel”.

Attempts to have the law expunged from Uganda’s law books started in 2009 after four Daily Monitor (link) journalists charged with defamation appealed to the Constitutional Court saying it was inconsistent with laws that safeguard freedom of expression and of the press.

However, the Constitutional Court upheld the law, arguing that “defamatory libel is far from the core values of freedom of expression, press and other media”.

The journalists appealed the decision but the process is being delayed by the Court of Appeal,  because it has failed to trace the record of the proceedings by one of the judges from the Constitutional Court case, without which, the case cannot kick off.

Uganda is one many countries in Africa with a law on criminal defamation.

The African Union’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information, Commissioner Pansy Tlakula last year launched an initiative in East Africa to counter criminal defamation and sedition laws.

She said, “Criminal defamation laws are nearly always used to punish legitimate criticism of powerful people, rather than protect the right to a reputation.”

Mr Sempala says that HRNJ-Uganda would hold a meeting with the journalist’s employer, CBS FM to discuss payment of the fine even though they have filed the appeal.

Grace Natabaalo

Grace Natabaalo is a programme assistant at the African Centre for Media Excellence.

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