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Uganda criminalizes comedians over satirical video

On Friday, July 24, Ugandan police arrested four comedians for a satirical video they posted online. The comedians, Julius Sserwanja, Simon Peter Ssabakaki, Merceli Mbabali, and Gold Kimatono, are part of a group called Bizonto and perform skits that they post online.

In the video, posted July 15, the group calls for people to pray for leaders in the Ugandan government and list president Yoweri Museveni and the heads of government bodies including the Electoral Commission, Uganda Revenue Authority, Uganda Prisons, the Bank of Uganda, Ministry of Finance, Internal Security Organisation, and the Uganda Police as the country’s most important top leaders. They don’t explicitly say so, but the leaders that this video highlights are all from the western region of Uganda, implying that power is concentrated in a group of men from one region of the country.

Police accused the group of “promoting sectarianism” and “causing hatred and unnecessary apprehension” with the video. In the penal code, promoting sectarianism is punishable by up to five years in prison. The four have yet to be officially charged, however, nor have the police brought them before a court, even though the law requires them to do so within 48 hours of arrest.

The arrest has sparked outcry among Ugandans who are now calling for the government to #FreeBizonto, after the comedy group’s name.

In recent years, authorities have clamped down on performers and media deemed critical of the government. In 2019, the Uganda Communications Commission passed vague rules which prohibit news that creates “public panic or unnecessary distress.” In 2019, police blocked opposition politician and musician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, from holding concerts indefinitely. The High Court ultimately overturned that order. Authorities have also gagged the media for airing reports covering Kyagulanyi, and switched off radio stations for hosting opposition leaders like Kizza Besigye.

Uganda’s constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of expression, and the government has accepted obligations under multiple African and international treaties to respect and protect that right. Arresting comedians for making a satirical video makes a mockery of this important right. And with mere months until general elections, the government should be taking steps to ensure people can freely exercise their rights to free expression, assembly, and opinion, instead of arresting them for it.

This article was published by HRW.


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