Freedom of Expression: Country Studies - Uganda

 Uganda Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 5.5; Political Rights: 6; Civil Liberties: 5. 

Note: From 2003 to 2014, Uganda’s overall freedom ranking in the Survey of Freedom in the World was between 4.5 and 5 in Freedom House’s scale (with 1 being most free and 7, being least free). In this period, this rating placed it in the category of a “partly free” country. Uganda’s score dropped to 5.5 and its status was downgraded to “not free” in the 2015 Freedom in the World Report due to a deterioration in political rights as well as civil liberties, including increased violations of individual rights and freedom of expression. However, Uganda’s status in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2016 report remained “partly free” given its still significant independent media. For purposes of Democracy Web’s Comparative Studies in Freedom, Uganda serves as a “partly free” country in the category of Freedom of Expression.



Uganda gained independence in 1962 after 75 years of Britain’s direct colonial rule. At first an electoral democracy, Uganda has had dictatorial governments since 1966, the worst period being the murderous reign of Idi Amin from 1971–76. A milder dictatorship took hold in 1986 when Yoweri Museveni declared himself president. He ended the worst forms of repression, instituted a semi-democratic system of elections, and restored growth to the economy. After thirty years in power, Museveni refuses to step down and won a seventh term in February 2016 in a highly dubious election process. While there is an active political opposition, Museveni’s rule has become increasingly repressive and it is now considered a “not free” country by Freedom House. Uganda’s generally vibrant and independent media struggles to survive. Freedom House ranks Uganda “partly free” in its Freedom of the Media Report for 2016. Reporters Without Borders ranks Uganda 97th out of 180 countries in its 2015 index. 

Uganda lies on the Lake Victoria basin in Central Africa and is located between the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the West and Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda to the east. Its northern border is South Sudan after gaining independence in 2011. Uganda has a multiethnic population of approximately 35 million, 38th largest in the world. Despite its size, it ranks among the poorer countries: 102nd in nominal GDP at $27.6 billion in total output and, even worse, 172nd in nominal per capita GDP for 2015 at $625 per annum, both figures according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Transparency International ranks Uganda 139th out of 167 countries and territories in its 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. 


Origins and the Emergence of Multi-ethnic Governance 

Uganda was populated by hunting and gathering groups as early as 30,000–40,000 BC. Different groups speaking Bantu, one of the dominant sub-Saharan African-language families, began residing in the area in the fourth century BC and spread their practices of herding and agriculture. Cushitic-, Nilotic-, and Luo-speaking tribes, mostly pastoralists, migrated to the area from the west and north of Africa at the end of the first millennium. Some pastoralists moved south to form the Hima and Tutsi ethnic communities of northern Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda. The Nilotic speakers who stayed in Uganda formed two major states, Bunyoro and Baganda, and several minor ones, which were all ruled through a royal clan system in which clan elders elected the leaders (kabakas). Buganda was the more successful, quadrupling its territorial control and surpassing Bunyoro as the dominant state in the region. 

State and Religious Rivalry Ends in British Rule 

Uganda thus developed its own internal system of rival states. When the British explorers John Speke and Henry Stanley arrived in the mid-19th century, they converted Buganda's kabaka, Mutesa I, to Christianity. His conversion sparked a competition between British Protestant, German Protestant, French Catholic, and Islamic missionaries in the region. Buganda's Protestant and Catholic adherents combined to defeat the initially successful Islamic converts, but then battled between themselves. The Protestants were victorious. Backed by the military force of Buganda, the British set out to conquer the Bunyoro and other areas in the region. In 1888, the British East Africa Company was granted full control of East Africa (the Lake Victoria region); in 1894, Buganda became a British protectorate.

President Yoweri Museveni shaking hands with US President Ronald Reagan.

British Colonial Rule and the Politics of Independence 

During a large portion of British colonial rule, Buganda was treated favorably in exchange for its loyalty to the Crown. The Buganda kabaka was able to keep half of the territory under his control while the British controlled the other half. Negotiations for independence began in the 1950s, but the British administrator considered Buganda's kabaka, Mutesa II, a major stumbling block for refusing to make concessions to other regions to achieve a unitary Ugandan state. Mutesa II wanted a separate nation-state for Buganda. Cohen briefly exiled Mutesa II in 1953, but this only served to strengthen his position among Bagandans and he was brought back in 1955 with restored powers, including to appoint his own governing council. The Democratic Party (DP) emerged to unite the country's Catholics and a coalition of non-Catholic, non-Bagandan groups formed the Uganda People's Congress (UPC), led by Milton Obote. 

When Mutesa II continued to thwart establishment of a unitary state, Cohen simply announced that elections would be held in March 1961 for a National Assembly representing the entire territory. Mutesa II boycotted those elections, but a second election for a national legislature was held in 1962. This time, the British allowed Mutesa II simply to fill a number of seats with members of his Kabaka Yekka Party (the King Only or KY party). Obote’s UPC then allied with members of Mutesa II’s KY party to create a dominant two-party coalition. Obote became prime minister of the initial government, and Mutesa II became the head of the unitary state. 

From Elections to Dictatorship 

Upon gaining independence in October 1962, Uganda and its new government faced many challenges due to its regional, ethnic, and religious differences. At first, Obote managed the many factions of the UPC and gained the army's loyalty. He also undermined Mutesa II’s political base by enticing members of the KY to defect to the UPC coalition with state patronage positions. Obote bolstered his position by allowing residents of the "10 lost counties" of Bunyoro, territory Buganda had seized in 1900, to vote in a referendum to return to their historical kingdom.  A corruption scandal, however, cost Obote nearly all support within his own party; only one UPC member voted for Obote in a no confidence vote. Instead of resigning, Obote carried out a coup against his own government with the support of the military. He ended the multiparty system, deposed President Mutesa II and forced him into exile, and had a new constitution adopted concentrating powers in the prime minister's office. He abolished the two-kingdom federal system, broke up Buganda into four districts, and established secret police and paramilitary forces to maintain his control. Uganda’s early promise as an electoral democracy was put to an end.

A Ugandan coin honoring Julius Nyrere of Tanzania for his role in ousting Idi Amin.

Idi Amin's Reign of Horror 

In January 1971, Idi Amin, a protégé of Obote who was head of the armed forces, staged a preemptive coup just before Obote, fearing Amin’s growing power, had planned to order his arrest. Amin instituted one of the most repressive regimes in Africa's post-colonial history. Under his reign, Amin's forces killed more than 300,000 people, including mass executions of the Acholi and Langi ethnic groups for their presumed loyalty to Obote. In 1972, Amin expelled Uganda's entire Asian community (approximately 50,000 people, mainly Indians), destroying Uganda's main class of commercial merchants. Amin, who was illiterate, ran his government by oral orders, leaving no written records. But eyewitnesses testified to the brutality of his rule (portrayed vividly in the film “The Last King of Scotland”). Finally, in 1979, Amin was overthrown by the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), resistance forces led by Obote, after Amin’s ill-fated declaration of war on Tanzania, whose army routed Amin’s. Saudi Arabia provided Amin refuge and he never was brought to justice. 

"The Movement System": Elections Without Democracy  

After three interim governments, presidential elections were held in December 1980 that again returned Milton Obote, still head of the UPC, to power. Obote's second term in office (1980–85) was a repetition of his first. Following a coup, a subsequent military regime carried out unsuccessful counterinsurgency campaigns to defeat an insurgent group, the National Resistance Army (NRA), which was led by Yoweri Museveni, a former officer in Obote’s intelligence service. The NRA seized Kampala in late January 1986, forcing government troops to flee to Sudan. On January 29, 1986, Museveni installed himself as president and has remained in power ever since. Museveni ended the harsh repression of the military dictatorship, introduced greater civil liberties to Ugandan life, and adopted successful economic policies to overcome Uganda’s hyperinflation, a product of 15 years of conflict. Arguing that political parties aggravated ethnic and religious conflicts in Africa, Museveni ran Ugandan politics for two decades according to what he called "the movement system." In effect, it was one-party rule under a supposed “non-party” coalition called the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Not surprisingly, Museveni won presidential elections held in 1996 and 2001. Two subsequent elections, in 2006 and 2011, took place under a changed constitution that allowed for opposition parties, but Museveni won these also. International monitors deemed both elections as seriously flawed by fraud, intimidation, and violence. 

International support has diminished due to Museveni’s entrenchment in power over nearly three decades, his increasingly dictatorial practices, and Uganda’s adoption of harsh anti-homosexual laws.

Eroding International Support

The international community backed Museveni’s original overthrow of military dictatorship. He retained international support due to his government’s initial respect for human rights, adoption of IMF stabilization policies, cooperation in the war on terror in neighboring African states, and a successful campaign to reduce HIV adult infection rates from one of the highest to one of the lowest in Africa (from 15 to 5 percent). The international community also strongly backed Uganda in a decades-long conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a messianic guerrilla movement led by warlord Joseph Kony that split from Museveni’s NRA in the mid-1980s. The LRA was expelled from Uganda, its original base, in 2005, but the LRA has continued to maintain bases in the jungles of neighboring countries. Kony remains a fugitive from the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges stemming from his abduction and forcible use of children as fighters and his gruesome practices (cutting off limbs of opponents). A 5,000-strong African Union army contingent has failed to capture Kony over several years even after being bolstered by US military special forces (see article in Resources). 

International support for Uganda’s government significantly diminished, however, as Museveni perpetuated his rule over nearly three decades through increasingly dictatorial practices and also adopted harsh anti-homosexual laws (see also below). Increasing corruption eroded confidence in the economy. In February 2016, Museveni claimed another presidential term in an election contested by Kizza Besigye, a long-time opposition leader whose previous bids had been thwarted by trumped up legal actions against him and various unfair electoral conditions. Besigye’s support appeared to have grown, but Museveni claimed a 60-35 percent victory. Besigye and other opposition leaders rejected the results due to blatant ballot stuffing, bribery, and widespread intimidation. Besigye himself was placed under arrest in the last week of the campaign.

Freedom of Expression

Under Uganda’s previous dictatorships following independence, and particularly during the murderous rule of Idi Amin, there was little respect for human rights or freedom of expression, either in law or practice. After Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986, his government eased repression, adopted a constitution protecting some human rights, and allowed independent media to develop to an unusual degree for a non-democratic regime. But Museveni’s increasingly authoritarian rule has put additional restrictions and constant pressure on the media, as well as on opposition political groups, independent groups, and alternative social movements.

Constitutional Guarantee and Government Practice

The Ugandan constitution adopted in the early 1990s protects free speech. Even before adoption of constitutional reforms, President Museveni had allowed a vibrant free media. While pro-government media are among the largest outlets, there are more than 200 independent radio stations, 50 independent television stations, and 50 independent print outlets that are independently owned and operated. The largest circulation newspaper, the Daily Mirror, is independent and highly critical of the government. The non-government media frequently report on corruption, question government policies, and challenge the government’s abuse of power. The legal environment however, is not fully free. The Press and Journalist Act (PJA) require the registration of journalists (who are required to have a university degree) and the licensing of media outlets, processes used to intimidate and control reporting. The Information Minister issues regulations under the PJA on ethics and practices that tend to limit journalists’ freedom.

 President Museveni and other government officials have frequently threatened and repressed the media.

In practice also, President Museveni and other government officials have frequently threatened and repressed the media. This was more frequent in the last decade. For example, in 2009, four radio stations were closed temporarily for reporting on protests. In that case, the Supreme Court showed its independence in ruling that the new law applied to close the radio stations, the Law on Sedition, was unconstitutional. But other laws remain on the books for libel and defamation; journalists are often harassed for reporting on government abuses; and new laws adopted in 2014, such as the Anti-Pornography Act (APA) and the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) threaten media freedom by regulating sexual material and reference to homosexuality. In November 2011, Amnesty International cited 30 cases of journalists facing criminal charges for reporting on corruption, human rights abuses, or topics dealing with “regional security.” Two radio journalists, Patrick Otim and Augustine Okello, were imprisoned in 2009 and 2011, respectively, both charged with treason. Otim was acquitted in 2012 but Okello remains in prison.

The internet operates with general freedom. While only 14 percent of the population accesses the internet through cable, there are 20 million cell phone subscribers that may access internet through WiFi. Some internet usage is now being restricted. In response to planned protests in 2011, for example, the Ugandan Communications Commission ordered internet service providers to temporarily block the social media sites Facebook and Twitter to “prevent the sharing of information that incites the public.”

The Environment for Political Expression

Most the government’s actions against free expression are related to limits on political rights aimed at maintaining Museveni’s hold on power. The 2006 election was the first in 25 years to allow candidates from multiple parties to compete, but the conditions were neither free nor fair. Kizza Besigye, the leader of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was allowed to return from exile to register for the election in November 2005, but the government immediately arrested him on false charges of treason and rape. Besigye was released to contest the elections without consideration of the charges. Conditions were clearly tilted towards Museveni, who controlled appointments to the Electoral Commission. He won 60 percent of the vote, while parliamentary elections held at the same time were dominated by the National Resistance Movement (NRM). The courts considered the case against Besigye only after the elections; in lengthy proceedings, he was finally cleared of all charges in 2010. The conditions for the 2011 elections, which Besigye and the FDC again contested, were similar. International monitors documented restrictions on political party activities and voter eligibility, heavy bias in state media, and use of government resources for the campaigns of Museveni and the NRM. Museveni claimed 68 percent of the vote, and his NRM party took 265 seats to Besigye’s 26 percent and the FDC’s 34 seats. During the electoral campaign, there were numerous attacks on journalists for covering opposition candidates.

After the elections, Besigye organized popular “walk to work” marches over the course of 2011 to protest electoral fraud and corruption. These were violently dispersed: nine persons were killed and there were large-scale arrests and physical attacks against journalists covering the events by police and paramilitary groups. There have continued to be confrontations between government security forces and supporters of Besigye and another opposition leader, Erias Lukwogo, a leader of the Democratic Party. (Lukwago, the elected mayor of Kampala, was impeached in 2013 when a government-appointed tribunal found him guilty of corruption and incompetence. Twenty journalists were arrested trying to cover the impeachment proceedings in which Lukwago was voted out of office. A High Court found the tribunal’s report invalid and ordered Lukwogo to return to office, but an Appeals Court reversed the order in March 2014 on the same day as Lukwogo sought to resume his duties. In the February 2016 elections, Lukwago won a resounding victory returning him to office.)

In response to the “walk to work” protest movement, the National Assembly passed the Public Order Management Bill in August 2013. The Bill significantly expanded the government’s power to restrict freedom of assembly and expression by imposing broad new limitations on “public meetings.” The law has been widely criticized by civil society groups, opposition parties, and the international community.

The Daily Monitor

The most significant attack on free media was the government’s campaign against the Daily Monitor, Uganda’s most widely read independent newspaper, following its publication in May 2013 of a sensational letter indicating dissension within the government. The letter was sent by General David Sejusa, the coordinator of intelligence services, to the head of the Internal Security Organization and other officers. The letter warned of an alleged plot to assassinate senior officials who opposed a plan to have Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, an army officer, succeed Museveni as president. Sejusa went into exile to the United Kingdom, where he continued to provide detailed information about the regime’s efforts to silence opposition, including several cases of mysterious deaths of elected officials and other government critics (on these incidents, see Resources for links to related articles in The New York Review of Books, New York Times, and Economist). The government denies any attempts to engineer Museveni’s succession or to assassinate internal opponents within the government. When Sejusa returned to Uganda, he was arrested to face charges in military court.

The security services questioned the newspaper’s editors and raided its offices to find out the source of the letter. It then shut down the Daily Monitor, as well as the tabloid Red Pepper and two associated radio stations housed in the same building. Protests against the closing by journalists and free media groups were forcibly dispersed by police. Three persons were arrested, including the national director of the Human Rights Network for Journalists–Uganda. In late May, the owners of the newspaper, the National Media Group (NMG), made an agreement with the government allowing all four media outlets to reopen but in exchange for a statement of regret about the story published by the Daily Monitor and a vague promise by editors to “be sensitive” when printing stories about the government. While there were fears that the agreement could set a precedent for self-censorship, the Daily Monitor continues to publish stories critical of the government.

Campaign Against LGBT Rights

Another troubling area for free expression is the government’s campaign against homosexuality and advocates of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, and Transgender) rights. Laws against “sexual deviance” were already severe. In December 2013, however, there even stronger sanctions were adopted with the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA). The law imposes new harsh sentences, including the death penalty, for homosexual acts as well as criminal penalties for promotion of homosexuality, a provision that could be applied to the media. The government also sponsored anti-homosexual demonstrations and campaigns against LGBT rights’ organizations. In 2011 and again in early 2014, a pro-government tabloid published the names, photographs, and some addresses of gay Ugandans. The gay rights activist David Kato was murdered in January 2011 following the first publication of names. (The killer pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment.)

The law and the government’s actions against LGBT rights, including the police closure of AIDS clinics and organized break-ins at Ugandan NGOs such as Human Rights Network–Uganda (HURINET-U), have sparked international protests. Although the US is continuing military aid to Uganda to support the country’s efforts to capture the international fugitive Joseph Kony, the Obama administration introduced economic sanctions on Uganda in June 2014 in response to the most recent anti-homosexual law. The AHA was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in late 2014 but on technical, not substantive grounds, and the parliament continued to re-consider legislation as of the end of 2015. Police repeatedly repress gay rights meetings and raid offices of gay rights advocates, while homosexuals face widespread discrimination in public settings, employment, and commerce.