Johannesburg. 12 May 2010. In the run up to the 2011 general elections, the legal and political environment for civil society in Uganda is rapidly deteriorating, and beginning to follow the trajectory of Ethiopia facing elections later this month.
As the 23 May elections in Ethiopia near, the administration has virtually left no stone unturned to silence the local media and civil society groups. To curtail the ability of civil society to effectively monitor the present elections, the Ethiopian authorities have over the past two years introduced a raft of restrictive measures, many of which are being replicated by the Ugandan authorities.
In March this year, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia introduced a media code that prevents journalists from interviewing voters, candidates and observers on election day, while also prohibiting predictions ahead of the announcement of results. In January 2009, the Ethiopian government brought into force, the controversial charities and societies proclamation which prohibits local human rights groups from accessing international funding vital to civil society. In July 2009, an anti-terrorism law was introduced to further restrict democratic dissent. Some of its provisions are so broad that a peaceful blockade of public services or incidental damage to property during a public protest can be construed as acts of terrorism. Appeals by civil society groups and the international community to the Ethiopian government about the systematic disempowerment of independent groups have gone unheeded.
Uganda is presently witnessing a spurt in restrictive legislation which has obvious parallels with the situation in Ethiopia. The Press and Journalist Amendment Bill made public earlier this year, requires all newspapers to be registered with the Media Council whose chair is appointed by the government. The Council can revoke the license of a newspaper on wide grounds which limit free speech and are susceptible to subjective interpretation. For instance, publishing material "prejudicial to national security, stability and unity" or any matter "injurious to Uganda's relations with new neighbours or friendly countries".
In October last year, the anti-homosexuality bill was introduced in the Ugandan parliament. Although it's a private members' bill, many fear that it is likely to be passed with a few changes. Apart from containing draconian punishments for sexual relations between people of the same sex, the wide ambit of the bill also calls for closure of any civil society organisation that promotes the rights of the LGBT community. Since most human rights advocacy groups are critical of the widespread homophobia prevalent in Ugandan society, it is feared that the bill if passed would also be used to clamp down on independent civil society.
Since last year, the Ugandan government has also started enforcing the NGO Registration Amendment Act to practically bind civil society in a stranglehold. NGOs need to re-register every three years as opposed to standard one time registration in line with international standards. This provision not only creates additional bureaucratic hassles for NGOs but can also be source of harassment for advocacy groups. NGOs are also required to give seven days notice to the district administration prior to visiting rural communities, hampering fact finding missions. Contravening any provisions of the NGO Act, operating without a permit or operating contrary to the conditions specified in the permit makes not only the NGO liable to a fine but also makes personally liable, the director or officer whose actions caused the offence to be committed. An omnibus provision makes NGOs liable for "all acts" of their "members and employees".
In Ethiopia, restrictive legal provisions have resulted in complete subjugation of independent civil society prior to this month's scheduled elections. Most human rights groups in compliance with the charities and societies proclamation have had to either suspend their activities or focus solely on service delivery without the liberty to advocate for rights based policy change. Last month, the license of the Ethiopian Bar Association, one of the few remaining independent civil society groups was suspended on a procedural irregularity. The bank accounts of Ethiopian Human Rights Council and the Ethiopian Women's Lawyers Association have been blocked for violating the charities and societies proclamation's restriction on receipt of foreign funds.
Media groups have also been similarly targeted. A number of independent journalists have left the country in fear of reprisals by government agents. In December 2009, a prominent independent newspaper, the Addis Negar shut down after its staff received death threats for exposing government corruption. Last month, two journalists employed with the state owned radio and television agency were arrested on charges of misappropriation of government property. It is widely believed that their arrests were politically motivated. The warning signals emanating from Ethiopia hold deep portents for next year's elections in Uganda.
CIVICUS urges States within the Community of Democracies, African and international community to engage with the governments of both countries to safeguard the fundamental freedoms of the Ethiopian and Ugandan people. Geo-political and strategic considerations must not freeze positive diplomacy to address serious violations of human and democratic rights.
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