Soyinka, Falana, Femi Kuti, others petition against Uganda’s censorship law

President of Uganda Yoweri K Museveni gestures as he speaks during a news conference in a hotel in St Julians, Valletta, Malta on the first day of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Friday Nov. 25, 2005. CHOGM was opened by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II on Friday and the event is due to hosted by Uganda in two years time. (AP Photo/Martin Cleaver)
President of Uganda Yoweri K Museveni gestures as he speaks during a news conference in a hotel in St Julians, Valletta, Malta on the first day of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Friday Nov. 25, 2005. CHOGM was opened by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II on Friday and the event is due to hosted by Uganda in two years time. (AP Photo/Martin Cleaver)

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, are among the activists who have petitioned the Ugandan government, demanding a halt to a planned censorship law.

The government is proposing regulations that include vetting new songs, videos and film scripts, prior to their release.

The activists, in a petition dated January 11, called on Uganda’s government to end what they described as “Grievous and blatant violation of the constitutional rights of Ugandan artists and producers.”

They also charged the government to honour its international obligations as laid down in the various international human rights conventions to which Uganda is a signatory and for Uganda to uphold freedom of speech.

A copy of the petition, which was obtained by PREMIUM TIMES on Monday in Abuja, was signed by over 120 persons.

The signatories include musicians, producers, human rights lawyers, music promoters, filmmakers and literary icons.

Others are Ugandan artist, Irene Ntale, International musician, U2 Bono, Gary Lucas and another Ugandan musician, Nubian Li.

The group said it is deeply concerned by the proposed laws which are likely to be used to stifle criticism of the government.

“We, the undersigned, vehemently oppose the draconian legislation currently being prepared by the Ugandan government that will curtail the freedom of expression in the creative arts of all musicians, producers, and filmmakers in the country,” the group said in the petition.

They also noted that the law would also require Ugandan artists to submit lyrics for songs and scripts for film and stage performances to authorities to be vetted.

About the proposed draconian law

The government of Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni has had a long history of attempts at censoring, especially of the media, throughout its 33-year reign.

Now, the government is seeking to take its censorship agenda to new frontiers as it makes attempts to curtail freedom of expression through a revised version of the Stage Plays and Public Entertainment Act.

Contained in a 14-page draft Bill that bypasses Parliament and will come before Cabinet alone in March to be passed into law, any artist, producer or promoter who is considered to be in breach of its guidelines shall have his/her certificate revoked.

The planned legislation also states that all musicians will also have to seek government permission to perform outside Uganda.

All Ugandan artists and filmmakers are required to register and obtain a license revocable for any perceived infraction.

– Artists required to submit lyrics for songs and scripts for film and stage performances to authorities to be vetted.

Content deemed to contain offensive language, to be lewd or to copy someone else’s work will be censured.

– Musicians will also have to seek government permission to perform outside Uganda. This proposed legislation, the artists say, is in direct contravention of Clause 29 1a b of the Ugandan Constitution which states: 29.

Background

Although freedom of expression is protected under the Uganda constitution, it is coming under increasing threat in the country.

In 2018, authorities arrested popular musician and opposition member of parliament, Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine. The 36-year-old singer turned opposition politician has amassed a large following among the country’s disillusioned youths for the biting criticism of the government contained in his lyrics.

He was badly beaten in military custody. Musicians, writers and social activists including Chris Martin, Angelique Kidjo, U2’s The Edge, Damon Albarn and Wole Soyinka, signed a petition calling for his release, which ultimately succeeded.

Since July 1, Ugandans have had to pay a tax of 200 shillings, about 5 US cents every day, when they use services including Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and WhatsApp.

The government said it wanted to regulate online gossip or idle talk but critics fear this meant it wanted to censor opponents. During the presidential election in 2016, officials blocked access to Facebook.

On January 31, the UK’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Jeremy Hunt MP, noted in a statement that his country was aware of the proposed regulations to the Ugandan music and entertainment industry.

“The UK’s position is that such regulations must not be used as a means of censorship. The UK supports freedom of expression as a fundamental human right and, alongside freedom of the media, maintains that it is an essential quality of any functioning democracy. We continue to raise any concerns around civic and political issues directly with the Ugandan government, his statement read.

Uganda’s entertainment industry is mainly about film and music production, dance, theatre, and poetry. All these aspects offer huge opportunities for the growing number of unemployed youths.

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