East African Appellate Court Orders Reconstitution of Trial Court in a Right to Freedom of Expression Suit


The Appellate Division of the East African Court of Justice in Arusha Tanzania, has ordered the reconstitution of the First Instance Division of the Court that heard a preliminary objection filed by the Attorney-General of Uganda against an application by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and 19 others seeking to intervene in a freedom of expression suit against the Ugandan Government as friends of the Court

Sometimes in 2015, MRA and 19 other International non-governmental organisations (NGOs) made written submissions as amici curiae in the Reference No 16 of 2014 between Ronald Ssembuusi and the Attorney General of the Republic of Uganda.

The Reference raised questions concerning the permissible limits on the right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the press and the right of access to information; and of how these freedoms relate to the Treaty-protected principles of democracy, the rule of law, accountability, transparency, social justice, and the promotion and protection of human rights.

In its ruling, the Appellate Court, upholding an appeal filed by the Attorney General of Uganda, ordered that the trial Court reconstitutes itself in order to compose a fresh ruling which should contain a clear determination of the pleaded point of preliminary objection.

The contention by the Attorney General of Uganda was that the affidavit accompanying the application of the 20 NGOs seeking leave to make submissions in the Reference and subsequently appear as amici curiae is incompetent, based on hearsay and does not disclose the source of information contained.

Ssembuusi, a journalist who once worked with the Central Broadcasting Services (CBS) radio was in October 2014 convicted and sentenced by the Magistrates Court at Kalangala in Uganda to a fine of one million shillings (USD 400) or a one year jail term for a story he reported on CBS radio, on 17th November 2011 alleging that the former Kalangala LC 5 chairman, Daniel Kikola, was being investigated in connection with the disappearance of solar panels donated to Kalangala district by the African Development Bank to pump clean water in the area.

Sembuusi appealed against his conviction and sentence at the High Court in Masaka. He also filed a Reference in the East African Court of Justice in Arusha, challenging the enforcement of criminal defamation laws, which place unjustifiable restriction on freedom of expression and access to information in Uganda.

The fact that these issues are central to the mandate of MRA propelled her to join the other 19 international NGOs to seek to utilize their expertise towards assisting the Court in its interpretation and application of the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community

The objective is to participate jointly in the Reference and attendant Applications, impartially assisting the Court in the interpretation and application of the Treaty provisions, with aid of jurisprudence and legislation that would enrich their decision, thereby contributing to the administration of justice and the just rule of law in the East African Community, as well as enhancing integration and development.

The NGOs which are joined in this matter are Media Legal Defence Initiative, Africa Freedom of Information Centre, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa, Centre for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria, Center for Media Studies and Peace building, Centre for Public Interest Law, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Foundation for Human Rights Initiative.

The rest are, Freedom of Expression Institute, Ghanaian PEN Centre, Human Rights Network-Uganda, Media Council of Tanzania, Media Rights Agenda, Media Institute of Southern Africa, Pan African Lawyers Union, PEN International, PEN Sierra Leone, PEN South Africa, PEN Uganda, and World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers .