Uganda’s New ‘Public Order’ Bill Is Poised to Strangle Free Speech

This week, the Ugandan parliament approved a piece of legislation that violates its citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms, effectively ending true democracy in the country. The final text of the “Public Order Management” bill has not been released, but the most recent draft of the bill will essentially muzzle free speech.

If that bill becomes law, it will give the Ugandan government unprecedented power to prevent and halt any public gatherings of a political nature. The law will outlaw any “group” of people, defined as three or more, from meeting in any public place to discuss or critique the government, its laws or its programs. These kinds of everyday debates will now require prior permission by the head of the Ugandan police force. The meetings have to be requested a full week in advance, cannot be held after 6 p.m. and can be quickly dispersed if police feel they are disrupting the peace.

AJWS President Ruth Messinger described the situation in a statement:

“The Public Order Management Bill poses an enormous threat to civil and political rights for all Ugandans. We are especially concerned about how our partners, who work and speak on behalf of some of the country’s most marginalized people, will continue to advocate for their rights under the extreme restrictions the bill dictates … This is an extremely troubling turn of events.”

This proposed law would impact every Ugandan. By prohibiting public meetings to discuss and debate government policies and affairs, the law creates a massive barrier for citizens and organizations trying to identify common concerns and advocate for basic government accountability and response. People won’t be able to meet to organize petitions or protests if the government violates their rights or fails to provide basic services.

In practical terms, grassroots organizations—including AJWS’s 24 Ugandan grantees—will need to get police permission before they hold any workshops or coalition meetings that might be related to government programs or general citizen concerns. Their legislative advocacy will come to a halt because it requires challenging existing laws or pushing for the passage of new laws; the “Public Order” bill will prohibit people from freely making statements to the media or public that critique any Ugandan laws.

AJWS staff and partners are deeply concerned that President Yoweri Museveni might soon sign this bill into law. If he does, it will be a major setback for Ugandan society and for our collective struggle to advance human rights.

For more information about this heinous bill, read this Amnesty International press release and AllAfrica’s coverage of this story.

Many thanks to Caroline Adoch, AJWS’s country consultant for Uganda, for her contributions to this post.