Closure of media houses: Police fully exercising their mandate
The past few days have been filled with the ‘Tinyefuza letter’ saga which culminated into the closure of some media houses, Red Pepper & Daily Monitor plus a few radio stations too, affiliated to the Monitor. Some analysts called it the ‘rape of the media’, while some activists said the police was gagging the media and all sorts of names have been used to describe the situation on our social networking sites. Everyone seemed to have become an expert on Article 221 of the Uganda Constitution which states that “It shall be the duty of (…) Uganda Police Force (…) to observe and respect human rights and freedoms in the performance of their functions” and article 29(1(a)) which states that, “Every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression which shall include freedom of the press and other media”.
I am not a lawyer by profession, and can’t claim to know the law that much but I tried to use this situation to learn a thing or two about the different laws that seem to back the police.
First of all, The Official Secrets Act of 1964 Chapter 2(3) states that, “Any person who, for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the territories of Uganda obtains, collects, records or publishes or communicates in whatever manner to any other person any secret official code word, or password or any sketch, plan, model, article, or note, or other document or information which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to a foreign power commits an offence under this act”
The next part caught my attention,
“Where any sketch, plan, model, article, note, document or information relating to or used in any prohibited place or anything in such a place, or any secret official code word or password is made, obtained, collected, recorded, published, or communicated by any person other than a person acting under lawful authority, it shall be deemed to have been made, obtained, collected, recorded, published or communicated for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the territories of Uganda unless the contrary is proved by the person accused”.The police has much more legal backing from the Police Act (Chapter 27 mainly), 1995 Constitution of Uganda e.t.c
All those articles, to me, look like they give police the mandate of investigations since neither Monitor nor RedPepper was ‘the person acting under lawful authority’. If a letter was written by the coordinator of Intelligence to members of the security organization, how did journalists, who are non-security members, get access to this letter? Any security personell has reason to worry if such a thing ever happened! This could actually mean that all intelligence information, that has been, is being & will be gathered, is compromised. Such a leak could mean one of two things; Either the author or recipient deliberately leaked it to the media, or there was leak in between the author and the recipient. Both cases are causes for any (and every) security agency to swing into action. Such a leak must be identified and eliminated for the future safety of any more intelligence information.
I’ll skip the possibility of a deliberate leak by author or recipient (which is actually very probable) and go to the leak in between the two. If the media houses are not willing to peacefully identify the source of their information, then a certain degree of force must be used. 3 Monitor personell (two journalists and their managing editor) were summoned to police and showed a court order requiring them to reveal their source which they refused to do. They insisted on keeping their sources confidential which left the police with an option of trying plan B. The tricky bit of this is that the same law gives media houses a right to protect their sources. I was chatting with a friend recently and he told me “Every freedom must not be enjoyed at the detriment of others”. So presence of freedom for a specific group of people is squashed if it infringes on a different group. No freedom given by any law is absolute. It always has its boundaries and once those boundaries are crossed, it ceases to be a freedom. Even the naturally given Right to life is not absolute in some lands!!!
Shortly after the letter was published, the social media was awash with lots of theories and conspiracies of what was going on. Some people confirmed a ‘Project Muhozi’, others talked of a possible coup orchestrated by armed deserters of UPDF, others talked of divisions within the army top leadership etc.
All in all, police must have decided to find the source of the letter and deal with him (or her) using the military law. Failure of Monitor journalists to reveal the source left the police with one more option, a search of Monitor premises to retrieve the letter and possibly get any further clues as to the source of the letter. To the magistrate, went the police!
The Official Secrets Act of 1964 in Chapter 11(1) states that “If a magistrate is satisfied by information on oath that there is a reasonable ground for suspecting that an offence under this Act has been or is about to be committed, he or she may grant a search warrant authorizing any police officer named in it to enter at any time any premises or place named in the warrant, if necessary by force, and to search the premises or place and every person found in it and to seize any sketch, plan, model, article, note or document that he or she may find on the premises or place or on any such person, and with regard to or in connection with which he or she has reasonable grounds for suspecting that an offence under this Act has been or is about to be committed”.
With a court order secured, deployments were done and searches started. It was at exactly this point that there was a general outcry of everyone talking of how police had become brutal and the situation had gone back to the days of Idi Amin.
Truthfully, some people on facebook and twitter just joined the bandwagon and made lots of noise without studying the available facts. Many of them seem to have forgotten that just a few days ago, Monitor had disregarded a Court Order to give information about their source to the police. Everyone took to the social media battlefield and waged war against police for disregarding the court order!!! To me, I believe that right upto this point, the police were following the law to the letter and hadn’t abused any part of it.
More to this, I was actually happy that they first secured a court order because article 11(2) of this same act further states that “Where it appears to a police officer of or above the rank of assistant superitendant that the case is one of great emergency and that in the interests of Uganda immediate action is necessary, he or she may by a written order under his or her hand give it to any police officer the like authority as may be given by the warrant of a magistrate under this section”. Meaning that the police could have actually done the search without a warrant but they went ahead to secure it.
After the (now labelled) crime scene was sealed off by the police and the search started, the legal teams of the media houses got a new set of court orders rescinding the search. To quote the court order published in The Monitor, “The search warrant (…) is hereby vacated (…) having been satisfied that in the process of execution of the said warrant, the execution of the said warrant was overstepped” and another directive to the police “(…) is ordered to return the said search warrant to this Honourable Court”, both statements from the same court order.
Apart from the legalties that seemed to be involved in delivering the court order, I don’t seem to find those two statements directing the police to stop the search. Instead, they direct the police to cease using the original court order as a basis for the search. So probably, the police can continue the search, and it would be legal for them since apart from the court order, they can use the authority bestowed upon their mandate to search if “it appears (…) that the case is one of great emergency”! Once again, people talked of panda gari and to a foreigner following Ugandans on twitter, he/she must have thought that hell had broken loose in Uganda! All hope would have been lost for our country if social media was the only source of news!!!
My worry is not the legal part of their actions though because I’m sure they can defend themselves. What I fear instead is the image they will end up portraying. The way this has been reported in the media (both local & international) will definitely give the government’s PR team a big job to accomplish. The swiftness of the operation, at a time when international dignitaries were jetting into the country, tells me that they weighed out the security interests against the publicity interest and decided to go ahead with the operation. However, the conflict they have opened up with the media fraternity can be disastrous to them in the long run if not corrected. Initially, I read some calls on social media for people to boycott NewVision & Bukedde and the likes till Monitor& Red Pepper would be reopened. I read other calls for the media fraternity to unite against what they called police brutality and cause a media blackout on coverage of gov’t functions! Well, I think the government must start looking at mending faces with these houses lest they keep the beef
I also worry for our economy. When private companies are closed for quite some time, gov’t is losing taxes, many people (who are directly & indirectly) employed by these media houses are now jobless yet children are going back to school and families have to eat and drink. How police (& gov’t) expect people to survive is another story altogether!
For God and my country
@jobaze (on twitter)
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