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Journalist convicted of criminal defamation for reporting on alleged theft of solar panels

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A Central Broadcasting Service (CBS) radio journalist, Ronald Ssembuusi has been convicted of criminal defamation by Kalangala Grade 1 Magistrate for voicing a story on November 17, 2011 implicating the former District Chairman Daniel Kikoola in the theft of solar panels donated by the African Development Bank.

“A statement implicating a person in the commission of a criminal offence and [that] implies that the person is likely to be a suspect is definitely false and defamatory. At common law, a statement is defamatory if its natural and usual meaning is defamatory. For a matter to be defamatory, it also has to be false. Counsel for the accused talked about what she considered inconsistencies or lies by the witnesses. The most important piece of evidence was that the information was published about the complainant by the accused and the witnesses listened to the news. Other inconsistencies that counsel pointed on all the witnesses did not in any way affect this substantive evidence given,” the trial magistrate, Kenneth Gimugu held in a judgment read by Twakirye Samuel the new magistrate, in the absence of the accused.

He argued that Ssembuusi's counsel, Catherine Anite, dwelt extensively on the importance of freedom of speech and media, but the case before court was not about the constitutionality of the offence and the constitutional court decided that section 179 of the Penal Code Act is a safeguard against the infringement of a person's reputation.

He added: “In the premises, I find that the prosecution has proved its case beyond reasonable doubt and I find the accused guilty and convict him accordingly,” Gimugu ruled.

The sentence will be passed on 17 October 2014 by the new magistrate, Samuel Twakyire, who ordered his sureties to produce him in court on that day – otherwise they will be committed to prison or forfeit their bond of shillings 1,000,000 each.

On 3 December 2011, Ssembuusi was charged with criminal defamation contrary to section 179 and 180 (1) of the Penal Code Act for reporting that about 40 solar panels out the 80 donated to Kalangala district by the African Development to pump safe water went missing. The story alleged that Daniel Kikoola, the former district chairman, was a suspect in the 'disappearance' of the missing solar panels.

“It is unfortunate that court is determined to punish a messenger for airing genuine concern over misappropriation of public resources by public officials. Those entrusted to manage public funds must account, the only way to do this is through the media and courts must support, not stifle the process. Criminal defamation is an obstacle, it has been outlawed in many progressive jurisdictions, and Uganda should not remain behind,” said Robert Ssempala, the national coordinator for Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda. He added, “we shall offer our full support to Ssembuusi, as we prepare to appeal the verdict”.

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