Ugandan editors questioned for ‘seditious’ political cartoon

Ugandan editors questioned for ‘seditious’  political cartoon

It’s cartoon Wednesday here at Passport. Three editors at the Uganda weekly The Independent, including editor-in-chief and FP contributor Andrew Mwenda, were summoned by police over a political cartoon in last week’s magazine. The cartoon, seen above, implies that President Yoweri Museveni is beginning a strategy to rig the elections scheduled for early 2011. Uganda is one of the few self-proclaimed democracies to retain criminal libel laws which can be used to prosecute journalists. However, the sedition law is currently under appeal to the Supreme Court and no prosecutions are allowed to move forward. (Freedom House rates Uganda “partly free.”)

The Comittee to Protect Journalists, which gave Andrew Mwenda its International Press Freedom Award for 2008, has the details and explains the first list item:

For four hours, 10 officers of the Media Crimes Department of Uganda’s Criminal Investigations Directorate questioned the editorial decisions of Managing Editor Andrew Mwenda, Editor Charles Bichachi, and Assistant News Editor Joseph Were of the bimonthly newsmagazine The Independent, according to defense lawyer Bob Kasango. Were was told to return for further questioning on Saturday, while Mwenda and Bichachi were ordered to return on Monday, according to local journalists…

Officers pressed the trio over the motive and production of an August 21 cartoon spoofing Museveni’s controversial decision to reappoint members of the embattled electoral commission to supervise the 2011 general election. The Supreme Court ruled that in the 2005 election the electoral commission did not adhere to its own rules and allowed irregularities including bribery, ballot-stuffing, and voter disenfranchisement.

A formal sedition charge from 2005 already hangs over Mwenda, one of 21 criminal counts that Uganda‘s best-known political editor and 2008 CPJ awardee is battling in court.

The second spot on the list alludes to the treason charges against opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who was brought to trial in late 2005 at the same time he was the main candidate opposing Museveni’s reelection. Olara Otunnu, a former U.N. official is thought to be another possible challenger in 2011.

The third item, Kiboko squads, refers to violent groups of men that attacked anti-government protesters in 2007 and were since linked to Museveni’s government by the Uganda Human Rights Commission, among others. 

Museveni is expected to face a serious challenge in the 2011 elections if the opposition can unite behind a single candidate. My sources in Uganda say he personally was very angry about the cartoon, leading to the questioning.

But still, a cartoon?

Press intimidation is fairly frequent in Uganda, but most international donors tend to look the other way as Uganda is relatively stable overall. 

But seditious cartoons? Really? That can’t be good for aid dollars. 

Full disclosure: I know all three editors well and worked at The Independent in 2008. Shortly before I arrived, a more dramatic incident occurred with government forces actually arresting several journalists at the magazine, raiding the office and seizing files and disks alleged to contain “seditious materials.” No charges were filed. 

The Independent, Uganda