Harassed activists hit back in Uganda
After years of harassment, a group of Ugandan activists who broadcast a radio programme to air allegations of corruption felt they had had enough. But instead of giving up their campaign they decided to hit back, and with the support of MLDI and other human rights organisations they are suing the state for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment.
The story began in 2006 when the group, called the Twerwaneho Listeners Club (TLC), decided to publicise what they claimed to be the unlawful eviction of people occupying land belonging to the kingdom of Tooro. Under Uganda’s constitution, traditional rulers of what were once separate kingdoms are officially recognised, and while they no longer have political or administrative power they retain certain rights, including possession of land.
This so-called “institutional” land is legally held in trust on behalf of the community, and when the owners wish to sell any of it, long-standing tenants must be given the chance to buy it or be compensated if they have to leave. Interest in the land has grown since it was announced in 2006 that it has oil reserves, and there has been an influx of mining companies and other businesses to the region.
The TLC (the name Twerwaneho means “Let’s struggle for ourselves”) drew attention to the alleged corrupt activities in a weekly listeners’ participation programme it ran on the Voice of Tooro radio station in Fort Portal, and when, under pressure from the authorities, their programme was suspended, another radio station took them in. The following year President Museveni issued a statement telling them to discuss other matters instead, but the station continued to give them a platform until its transmitter was put out of action by soldiers who poured acid into it.
The land in question is in the name of the Queen Mother of Tooro, and two soldiers who said they were guards to the Queen Mother confessed to being involved in the sabotage. But the regional police commander was told to send them to the capital, Kampala, where they were released and no further action was taken. Protests ensued and six TLC activists were arrested and charged with inciting violence and criminal libel against a number of prominent figures, including the local MP.
With MLDI's help they were acquitted in 2009 and soon afterwards launched their case for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment, but they say the harassment has continued. At the end of 2012, following a programme about alleged corruption involving the prime minister’s office, the District Commissioner for the region went on national TV and radio to warn radio stations in Fort Portal against hosting the TLC, claiming it was spreading malicious propaganda against the ruling party. This warning was repeated by President Museveni.
Meanwhile, the TLC says the authorities are dragging their feet over its own case. After two adjournments, a hearing was fixed for 23 October last year, only to be further adjourned.
“The abnormal delays in disposing of court cases are a major challenge in the pursuit of justice,” says TLC’s programme coordinator, Gerald Kankya, who in 2011 won the inaugural EU Human Rights Defender award. “And the prosecution of TLC activists is calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship.”