In Uganda, when does brash talk radio become sedition?

Radio talk show host Andrew Mwenda angered Uganda's government after controversial remarks.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Few prisoners at Kampala's central police station embraced their detention this month to emulate freedom fighters such as Nelson Mandela.

But outspoken journalist Andrew Mwenda was no ordinary prisoner.

As political editor and columnist for the independent Daily Monitor, and as talk show host for the paper's radio station, KFM, Mr. Mwenda has earned a reputation as a sharp critic of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

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But Mwenda crossed a line August 10, when he blamed the Ugandan government for the death of Sudanese Vice President John Garang, who died last month in a helicopter crash.

Uganda's broadcasting council took KFM off the air the next day, later saying his program was likely to lead to violence. Then the government jailed him for three days. Mwenda was freed on bail last week, but he now faces charges of sedition, which could entail a five-year jail term.

Mwenda's case dramatizes what media watchdogs say is a worrisome trend here: the scaling back of press freedom ahead of political change. The upcoming March election is the first one to be fought on party lines since 1980. Analysts say Mr. Museveni is becoming more authoritarian as that date approaches.

But Mwenda isn't backing down. And the Daily Monitor's lawyers say the sedition law is an archaic, colonial-era relic and they plan to challenge its constitutionality.

The government's indignation at Mwenda's comments may have been undermined by Museveni himself. Several days before the offending program, he traveled to southern Sudan and said the crash of the Ugandan helicopter may not have been an accident, as initially claimed.

That explanation, says Joel Barkan, a professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in East African politics, is intended to avoid the "specter of the junk- helicopter deal."

That deal refers to a corruption case from the late 1990s where the government spent millions of dollars on four helicopters from Belarus that could not fly.

Addressing the country hours before Mwenda's August 10 program, Museveni blasted the journalist and threatened to close down the Daily Monitor and two other papers, calling them "vultures."

"If they want to continue doing business in Uganda, they must stop interfering in security matters of the region," he said.

Those remarks worry local and international media watchdogs.

Mohles Kalule of the Uganda Journalist Safety Committee, which monitors harassment and arrest of journalists, says press freedom is in retreat. "The government has not really invested enough in freedom of speech"

A July 28 referendum demonstrated overwhelming support for the restoration of multiparty politics, which Museveni has restricted during his rule.

Critics insist that he and his supporters have bribed many members of parliament to amend Uganda's decade-old Constitution and lift presidential term limits.

That clears the way for the president, in power since 1986, to run for a third term.

But Mr. Barkan says the government is becoming more authoritarian, evidenced by its crackdown, as the election approaches.

"President Museveni's approach to the onset of multiparty politics in Uganda is nearly identical to the approach of former president [Daniel arap] Moi in Kenya a decade ago," he says. "Agree to multiparty democracy in form, but harass the opposition and the press, create an unlevel playing field, and try to orchestrate the outcome through the disbursement of patronage and money."

Most observers say that Uganda's weak and fragmented opposition will be unable to defeat Museveni next year.

Mr. Kalule, however, says the independent press is a far more potent force, one that will face increased threats and attacks in the coming months.

"It would weaken the last check Uganda has on the government," he says.

KFM returned to the airwaves last Thursday after Mwenda apologized to his listeners. He's not due back in court until August 29, but he remains defiant.

"My head remains unbowed and unshaken by the threats from the state," he says. "Neither jail nor intimidation will stop me from exercising my right to free speech."

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