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Uganda court finds provincial radio reporter guilty of criminal defamation

The local correspondent of Central Broadcasting Service, a radio station owned by the traditional kingdom of Buganda, Ronald Ssembuusi (centre) did a report three years ago about the theft of solar panels donated by the African Development Bank for the district’s water supply.Photo: hrnjuganda.wordpress.com

After three years of proceedings marked by many irregularities, a court in the southern district of Kalangala has found journalist Ronald Ssembuusi guilty of criminal defamation for mentioning an allegation linking former Kalangala district chairman Daniel Kikoola to the theft of solar panels.

The case has revived Reporters Without Borders’ concern about media freedom in Uganda. Ssembuusi is facing the possibility of two years in prison when a sentence is passed tomorrow.

The local correspondent of Central Broadcasting Service, a radio station owned by the traditional kingdom of Buganda, Ssembuusi did a report three years ago about the theft of solar panels donated by the African Development Bank for the district’s water supply.

In his report, he mentioned the fact that, after being arrested by the police, the person in charge of the district water supply had implicated Kikoola. He contacted Kikoola for a comment. Kikoola nevertheless decided to file a complaint against Ssembuusi, who was charged in December 2011 with defamation under sections 179 and 180 of the penal code.

“Yet another journalist has been sacrificed on the altar of a judicial system that serves the interests of the powerful,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk. “The length of the judicial proceedings and their effect on Ssembuusi, who is now ill, are disgraceful. Ssembuusi was just doing his job as a reporter. If journalists cannot cover cases of corruption and embezzlement, who will? We call on the court to quash this unjust verdict.”

As well as the length of the proceedings and the prosecution’s failure to produce evidence to support the charge, there is a disturbing conflict of interest. Gimungu Kenneth Kabiri, the judge handling the case, knows Kikoola well. Both are members of the advisory board of a local NGO, Ssese Humanitarian Services.

When the court issued its guilty verdict on October 3, Ssembuusi was unable to attend the hearing because of his poor health and was represented by two other journalists. The court told them they would themselves be prosecuted or fined 1 million shillings (about 300 euros) each if Ssembuusi failed to show at tomorrow’s sentencing hearing.

Uganda is ranked 110th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

Date posted: October 17, 2014 Last modified: May 12, 2018 Total views: 85