The High Court in Kampala has dismissed a counter suit filed by the Ugandan government against the Central Broadcasting Station (CBS), which was shut down in September 2009 on allegations of inciting violence.
On September 10 2009, the Broadcasting Council shut down and revoked the licence of CBS for allegedly using it to “mobilise and incite the public and sowing seeds of hatred among Ugandans” leading to the death of more than 27 people during the riots that followed a standoff between the central government and the seat of the Buganda kingdom. CBS is owned by the Buganda Kingdom.
Over 100 CBS employees later filed a lawsuit asking court to declare the revocation of radio station’s licence “unconstitutional, illegal, unlawful, null, and void”. The employees also sought about Shs 3 billion in compensation, arguing that the “unjustifiable” closure had rendered them jobless.
However in February 2010, the government also filed a counter suit seeking to compel CBS to pay aggravated damages for allegedly mobilising and inciting the public into violence and rebelling against lawful authority.
On August 20, High Court Judge Vincent Zehurikize dismissed the government’s suit with no costs to CBS. He said that authority to take disciplinary action against any media house lies with the Media Council and not the government.
The judge ruled, “The fact that the government received complaints from the general public and security agencies does not give it a right to sue on behalf of the citizens but it can institute criminal proceedings against those who breached the law as a way to protect the citizens.”
The ruling paves way for the continuation of the case in which the CBS employees want the government to reopen the radio station and also pay them Shs 3billion in compensation in lost earnings.
Mr Frederick Ssempebwa, the lawyer representing CBS employees, told the media outside court that “government has powers to license for example, but those powers don’t include bringing a case for compensation against CBS.”
Mr Ssempebwa added that the suit filed by the CBS employees will resume in October this year. “The employees still have their case for compensation; that one we shall argue,” he said.
CBS radio was one of the four stations that were shut down in September 2009 after the dramatic standoff between the central government and the Buganda Kingdom.
The other three stations, Suubi FM, Radio Sapienta, Radio Two (Akaboozi Kubiri), were later opened with stern warnings after they apologised for the misconduct of their employees. They were also forced to dismiss some presenters and journalists that the government complained against.
Critics and human rights defenders accused the Broadcasting Council of acting on the orders of a government that was besieged and condemned the decision to shut down the radio stations as a gross infringement on freedom of expression.
The closure of the four radio stations is reported to have had a chilling effect on journalists from other media houses, who were reported to be exercising undue self-censorship. Others claimed receiving orders from their managers or radio station owners not to focus on the Buganda kingdom and other controversial political stories.
In January a Cabinet sub-committee formed to address the CBS closure came up with 12 conditions for reopening the radio station. CBS management was required to apologise to the government “through the Broadcasting Council”, relocate its studio from the Kabaka’s palace (Bulange), withdraw the court case brought by employees against the government, dismiss journalists and presenters who allegedly participated in inciting the September riots, and follow the minimum broadcasting standards.