Photo credit: The Observer
African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) condemns the high-handed manner in which the state has treated the directors and editors of Red Pepper, who have been in detention for two weeks.
The continued shutdown of Red Pepper and its affiliate titles and radio station, the prolonged detention and delay to consider and rule on the bail application of the five directors and three editors who have been in detention since 21 November is not justifiable.
On Tuesday 5 December 2017, a magistrate’s court sent the eight back to jail for another 14 days as it considers their bail application.
The Red Pepper officials were last week charged with several counts of sedition, offensive communication and publishing information “prejudicial to national security” following the publication of a story in the newspaper’s 20 November 2017 edition titled, “M7 plotting to overthrow Kagame – Rwanda”.
“The prolonged detention of the eight and the closure of their business is not only disproportionate to the offences preferred, but also appears to be a calculated ploy to intimidate the Red Pepper and the entire media fraternity in Uganda,” said Dr Peter Mwesige, the ACME executive director.
“These actions have a chilling effect on the exercise of the right to press freedom and the wider rights to freedom of expression and speech, which are guaranteed by the Constitution,” Dr Mwesige added.
Some Ugandans who may not agree with Red Pepper’s methods of work, tone and choice of content think this serves the publishers of the tabloid right. This is a narrow and unfortunate reading of what is happening. The move against Red Pepper is part of a pattern of state actions geared at silencing dissent and free speech.
Those who are celebrating the silencing of Red Pepper should also remember that some of the offences preferred against the directors and editors, such as “offensive communication”, are as much a threat to ordinary Ugandans who are increasingly using computer-assisted communication. If these charges are allowed to stand against Red Pepper, we shall all be in trouble because they can be easily preferred and allowed to stand against any of us.
Our defence of Red Pepper is not to endorse its approach to journalism, but rather to highlight what our Supreme Court has called “the greater danger of smothering alternative views of fact or opinion”.
It was the same court that said that the great benefit that society derives from the exercise of freedom of expression by citizens justifies the tolerance of that freedom “even in respect of demonstrably untrue and alarming statements rather than to suppress it”.
ACME remains a champion of excellence in journalism, and in particular supports the exercise of high journalistic standards that uphold accuracy, verification, fairness, and context.
However, we condemn the criminalisation of publication simply because our leaders or sections of society are not comfortable with the ideas disseminated or that their “peace” will be disturbed.
We are also aware that the fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution are not absolute. But the limitations on the exercise of these rights must not only be legal, but also “reasonable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society”.
“The state’s actions against Red Pepper are neither reasonable nor justifiable in a free and democratic society,” Dr Mwesige said. “We call upon Ugandan journalists, media owners, civil society actors, politicians and all those who believe in the freedom of speech to stand with Red Pepper even if some do not like how they do their journalism.”
ABOUT AFRICAN CENTRE FOR MEDIA EXCELLENCE. ACME is a Kampala-based independent, non-profit professional organisation committed to promoting excellence in journalism and communication in Africa.
For further information, please contact Dr Peter Mwesige, ACME’s executive director on +256-784 471 527; mwesige[at]acme-ug.org