Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, Feb. 3, 2012

This week, the residents of Wukan, the village in China's Guangdong province that witnessed bold anti-corruption protests back in December, went to the polls in an exceptional first step towards electing their local leaders (see photo above).  Meanwhile, a Western journalism watchdog group concludes that Chinese journalists have a surprisingly high impact on government policy -- even though the government is far from loosening its grip on dissent.

For the first time, the finance minister of Burma (Myanmar) revealed the country's external debt: a cool $11 billion. That news came as the government unveiled its next budget, which includes significant rises in spending on education and health even as the military appears set to retain a large share. Cambodia's war crimes tribunal sentenced "Duch," the Khmer Rouge's notorious prison chief, to life in prison. Meanwhile, Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appears set to return home from exile.

In South Sudan, journalists are still waiting for a long overdue media bill to receive final government ratification. In the meantime, security forces continue to harass and arrest journalists with impunity.

In Senegal, the opposition took to the streets to protest against the constitutional court's decision to allow President Abdoulaye Wade to run for a third term. Violence escalated on Monday when two protesters were shot dead and dozens injured.

Rioters clashed with security forces in Algeria amid a growing number of strikes and protests. Meanwhile, the leader of the main Islamist opposition party warned of unrest if the upcoming parliamentary elections in May are rigged.

Tunisia forges ahead with its own democratic transition as it struggles to balance the competing demands of democracy and religion. The government, meanwhile, is touting its attractions as an investment destination. Yemen confirmed its intention to set up a stock market.

Fourteen jailed Bahraini dissidents started a hunger strike and Kuwaitis voted for their fourth parliament in six years. Iraq's Sunni leaders ended their boycott of parliament to protest the government's alleged crackdown on Sunni politicians, although most commentators agreed that the crisis was far from over.

Two Egyptians were shot dead by the police and hundreds were injured in protests demanding accountability from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's ruling military junta, over the deadly football riots on Wednesday night. A prominent commentator wrote that these events have the potential to sway both the Muslim Brotherhood and the country's vast "silent majority" against SCAF even as they highlight the urgent need for police reform and civilian oversight of the security services.

Egypt's electoral commission announced the results of the first round of voting for the Shura Council (the upper house of Parliament). The overwhelming victory for Islamist parties was consistent with the earlier results of elections for the lower house (although voter turnout was radically lower).

Violence continues unabated in Syria. In New York, diplomats spent the week revising a UN Security Council draft resolution to get Russia on board. Western governments and Arab states continued to discuss options for the possible exile of Bashar al-Assad. A conference in Iran aimed at rebranding the Arab uprisings as an "Islamic Awakening" backfired, in part because no one from Syria's opposition was invited to the event.

Protests continued in Russia. One influential group of Western analysts conclude that Putin will weather the storm and win the elections. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, however, predicts an Arab Spring-like revolution that will topple the Russian government.

At a Communist Party conference last weekend, Cuban President Raul Castro launched a wide-scale anti-corruption campaign and floated the idea of term limits for high ranking officials, including himself. (He added, however, that a multi-party system is not in the books.) Meanwhile, a report revealed that Cubans paid nearly 20% more for their food in 2011.

A Haitian judge sparked outcry from human rights organizations by recommending that the infamous former Haitian dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier face trial for corruption rather than abuses of human rights.

Finally, the New York Review of Books launched a blog mini-series about the fate of democracy in different parts of the world.

-- by Chloé de Préneuf

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Democracy Lab

Uganda: The shrinking space for freedom of speech

A few days ago the Paris-based group Reporters without Borders (RSF) released a report that caused some distress to Uganda’s information minister. The RSF report detailed the difficulties faced by Ugandan journalists and showed how the space for media freedom in the country has been shrinking.

Mary Karooro Okurut, the information minister, responded by saying that the report does not give an “accurate picture of press freedom in Uganda.”

The RSF’s Press Freedom Index ranks Uganda at 139 out of 170 countries surveyed worldwide. This is something that should obviously worry human rights activists. The report also condemns the National Resistance Movement (NRM), the ruling party, for limiting the media industry’s ability to operate freely.

Actually, though, the media should be applauded for their willingness to cover various controversial issues in this country. These are matters of national importance, ranging from the economic crisis that resulted in the “Walk to Work” protests to the debate about corruption in the oil sector.

Like any other reasonable person, I would strongly agree that the media be granted the freedom to work. But that may be a bit much to ask from a regime like the one we have here in Uganda. And perhaps matters are complicated by the political and economic hardships the country faces.

Ugandan government security operatives have threatened, intimidated, and in some cases tortured journalists. These experiences have transformed journalism into a risky profession, one in which its practitioners are susceptible to torture and unlawful arrest. You can get arrested for covering stories that make the state uncomfortable. Even radio presenters have become targets. The resulting climate of fear means that many Ugandans no longer bother discussing politics in the open.

And yet the 1995 constitution of the Republic of Uganda, as well as its amended version, clearly provide for the freedom of speech: Article 29 (1) (a) specifies that “every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media.”

It goes without saying that his principle is no longer widely observed. The state, indeed, actively works to limit freedom of speech. Its main tool for doing this is the police.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the police had a reputation as protectors of the lives and property of the citizens of Uganda. That is their constitutional duty as an institution. Nowadays, however, their mission seems to have changed.

The police targeted journalists during the “Walk to Work” campaigns. In January 2012, a shot was fired at a journalist by plainclothes security personnel travelling in police vans. In November of last year a Rwandan journalist was shot dead in Uganda. Dozens of reporters have been beaten and injured and their equipment confiscated in the course of their work. (The photo above show a man fleeing police tear gas during a Jan. 24 protest in a suburb of Uganda.)

The reputation of the police among ordinary Ugandans is dismal – and not only because of the way it treats the press. Corruption and the abuse of human rights have also done a great deal to widen the divide between the police and the public. This divide will only deepen unless the government does something to clean up this mess. Getting the police out of the media business might be a good place to start.