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Criminal libel case against CBS journalist fails to take off

(HRNJ-Uganda/IFEX) - A case in which former Kalangala district chairperson Daniel Kikoola accuses journalist Ronald Ssembuusi of criminal libel has failed to take off and has been adjourned to 20 April 2012.

Kikoola alleges that Ssembuusi, a correspondent for the radio station Central Broadcasting Services (CBS) for the Kalangala district, defamed him when he reported that Kikoola was being investigated for alleged involvement in the disappearance of solar panels. The story aired on CBS on 17 November 2011.

The matter before Grade One Magistrate Gimungu Kenneth Kabiri was adjourned because the prosecution failed to show evidence that Ssembuusi had been served with the criminal summons that was issued on 24 February 2012. The matter was adjourned to 7 March 2012 to enable prosecution serve the accused, but service was not affected. Ssembuusi is represented by HRNJ-Uganda lawyer, Catherine Anite.

Anite objected to the commencement of the trial because the accused had not been served. He has a constitutional right to a fair hearing where he must be informed of the nature of the offence and be given adequate time and facilities to prepare his defense.

Over 80 solar panels were donated in 2010 by the African Development Bank through the ministry of water and environment to help circulate clean and safe water in Kalangala Town Council. Unfortunately, about 40 went missing. Since November 2011, police have recovered 21 of the missing solar panels. The bank provides grants to African governments and private companies investing in African countries.

Kikoola reportedly called Ssembuusi on 21 November and invited him to his home, but the journalist declined the invitation. HRNJ-Uganda intervened and caused meetings and telephone call conversations between police and Mr. Kikoola.

Ssembuusi reported that on 23 November 2011 at around 11:30 a.m. he received an anonymous call telling him to back off his reporting about the solar panels. This went on for about a week. Kikoola allegedly called Ssembuusi repeatedly and, during his last call, warned him that, “something strange would happen to him,” Ssembuusi said.

“Somebody called me on a private number and it was a man's voice. He alleged that he was calling from the police. He said I would be kidnapped and my relatives or lawyers would not be able to trace my body if I don't back off from reporting on the missing solar panels,” said Ssembuusi. When HRNJ-Uganda contacted Kikoola, he confirmed having called the journalist but denied threatening him.

Ssembuusi reported the matter to the Kalangala police station and recorded a statement but the police never investigated it, even though the Kalangala Police OC CID Joseph Ssenabulya had assured HRNJ-Uganda that serious investigations would be undertaken. The District Police Commander (DPC) for Kalangala, Batte Godfrey Bolingo, was also implicated in the theft.

“HRNJ-Uganda welcomes the adjournment, and believes that the principles of fair hearing will be accorded. This is a very sensitive case given the fact that the police have not been free from suspicion in the matter, since they failed to undertake investigating the journalist's death threats. So we implore the court to impartially handle the matter and deliver justice to Ssembuusi,” said HRNJ-Uganda Programme Coordinator Wokulira Ssebaggala.

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