* Journalists complain law was used to muzzle them
* Court says law limits fundamental rights
By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA, Aug 25 (Reuters) - Uganda’s constitutional court struck out the crime of sedition from the nation’s Penal Code on Wednesday, ruling that it limited fundamental freedoms of speech and expression.
Rights campaigners complain successive Ugandan governments have used the law on sedition to harass critical journalists and stifle political dissent.
The law stems from the colonial era and involves publishing, broadcasting or uttering words that arouse hatred toward and bring the presidency into disrepute.
Five constitutional court judges agreed with arguments in a petition brought by the East African Media Institute (EAMI) and senior Ugandan journalist, Andrew Mwenda, that the law violated constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of expression.
“We argued that the law on sedition was incompatible with constitutional freedoms and was meant to shield unaccountable political leaders from criticism, a state of affairs that cannot prevail in a democratic system and the judges agreed with us,” Kenneth Kakuru, EAMI’s lawyer told Reuters after the ruling.
About a dozen journalists and a prominent opposition politician, Olara Otunnu, are facing sedition charges.
Angelo Izama, a journalist at a local independent daily, The Monitor, and one of those battling sedition charges, said the ruling was one more step in the continuing efforts to narrow the state’s ability to use the judicial system to curtail critical media and stifle damaging public debate on political issues.
“The judicial legroom has been narrowing and this is one huge step but of course we do expect the state to now resort to other archaic and dubious laws to reign in independent and critical media,” he said.
Uganda’s President Museveni, in power for 24 years, has been commended for returning sustained economic growth and a measure of political stability over the last two decades.
But donors, opposition politicians and rights activists say he has recently sought to quash free speech and clamp down on opposition as a means to perpetuate his stay in power.
He is widely expected to be nominated by his party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), to run for a fourth term in next year’s presidential poll. (Editing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura and Jon Hemming)