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Freedom of expression must be defended during Uganda's elections, says IFEX

The IFEX network calls on the international community to pressure the incumbent government of Uganda to end its crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly during the election period and beyond.

Riot police detain a supporter of Uganda's leading opposition party as police and military forces disperse their procession to a campaign ground in Kampala, Uganda.
Riot police detain a supporter of Uganda's leading opposition party as police and military forces disperse their procession to a campaign ground in Kampala, Uganda.

REUTERS/James Akena

ATTN:

Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Federica Mogherini
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

Ambassador Deborah Malac
U.S. Ambassador to Uganda


IFEX, the global network of 104 organisations dedicated to promoting and defending freedom of expression, writes to you with serious concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in Uganda in the lead up to Presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 18 February 2016. We call on you to use all diplomatic channels to urge the Government of Uganda to respect freedom of expression, assembly and information as fundamental rights that are essential to the conduct of free and fair elections.

The government of incumbent Presidential candidate Yoweri Museveni is notorious for its suppression of criticism and has often targeted journalists, activists and human rights defenders with punitive measures aimed at closing down space for public debate and the airing of complaints about the regime's abuses.

The tactics used by the government include repressive and overbroad legislation, media bans, judicial harassment, and heavy-handed violence by state security forces. In the lead-up to the elections, this pressure has only increased as a crackdown on opposition supporters, media personnel and civil society groups has tainted the electoral process.

The government is already implicated in a litany of recent tactics to prevent the free flow of information necessary for voters to make informed decisions about their collective political future. Harassment and intimidation of groups deemed critical of the government or supportive of the opposition have occurred at the hands of police, regional district commanders and government officials. Reports of violent assaults, involuntary seizures, forced closures, bribery and other incidents have all gone up over recent months.

The result of this toxic environment has been a marked chilling effect on journalists and others attempting to cover the elections. With this level of abuse, it is clear that the standards for free and fair elections are not being met and could lead to substantial unrest both prior to and after the election results are in. It is worth remembering that in the past, the sitting government has not hesitated to use lethal force to put down protests, such as occurred in 2009 and 2011.

In the remaining days before the election, the international community has a crucial role to play in encouraging the government to allow constituents and advocacy groups to voice their opinions about the candidates and their policies, and to permit the media to carry out their work of covering the election unimpeded. It is similarly critical to encourage Uganda's political leaders to respect the rights of its citizens to demonstrate peacefully and refrain from the use of force.

International pressure may have made a difference in overturning the country's discriminatory anti-LGBT legislation in 2014. The IFEX network appeals once again to bring this pressure to bear on the government to uphold its responsibility to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens during the election period and beyond.

Signed,

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