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The Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) notes that the Uganda Law Revision (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act, 2023, has repealed some of the rogue and vagabond, sedition, and false news offences in its Penal Code. Uganda further repealed the offence of offensive communication in the Computer Misuse Act. SALC welcomes this development as it is an inevitable win for the Global Campaign to Decriminalise Poverty, Status and Activism. Uganda joins Malawi, which repealed its sedition offence in February 2023.

One of the enduring legacies of colonialism is the creation of uniform Penal Codes throughout the African Continent. Whilst some countries have vigorously reformed their criminal laws, others have been unresponsive to removing some archaic offences, especially when these offences protect those in power and further the interests of the elite in society.

Mass arrest practices carried out under the guise of crime prevention are prevalent throughout Africa and are a legacy of colonial-era policing practices that blatantly disregard human rights. On 2 December 2022, the Ugandan Constitutional Court, in the case of Francis Tumwesige Ateenyi v Attorney General, declared unconstitutional sections 168(1)(c) and(d) of the Penal Code, which provided for the offence of being rogue and vagabond. Law enforcement officers routinely used these offences to arrest and persecute poor and marginalised people, including sex workers, sexual minorities, and informal traders.

The unanimous decision came after the Advisory Opinion issued by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights on 4 December 2020, which encouraged States to reform all vagrancy-related offences. The Court noted that no reasonable justification exists for the distinction the law imposes between those classified as vagrants and the rest of the population except for their economic status. It is commendable that Uganda moved so swiftly to repeal sections 168(1)(c) and (d) of the Penal Code.

“We are happy that following the Advisory Opinion of the African Court on vagrancy offences, the Government of Uganda has taken steps to repeal some of the rogue and vagabond offences provided in the Penal Code. We urge the Uganda Government to review further the other remaining vagrancy laws that provide for offences of being idle and disorderly offences and the remaining rogue and vagabond offences under section 168. These laws give broad discretion to law enforcement agencies to arrest people based on their economic and other status and are discriminatory and a disproportionate response to socio-economic challenges. People cannot be criminalised for being poor,” said Chikondi Chijozi, SALC’s Criminal Justice Lead.

The Uganda Law Revision (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act, 2023, has also repealed sections 39, 40 and 50, which provided for sedition and false news offences.

These are positive developments as Uganda has, in the past decades, experienced an erosion of media freedom by the government and its agencies through the implementation of Sections 39, 40 and 50, which provided for sedition and publication of false news, respectively. Numerous journalists have faced criminal charges because of their work, and there was increased state control over media houses by setting up regulatory mechanisms to censor print media operations in Uganda. Vague offences and statutes make for bad jurisprudence because precedents cannot be set, provided vague laws rely on fact-intensive circumstances. These developments present Uganda an opportunity to lead the charge in cementing the protection and promotion of civic rights through legislation,” said Melusi Simelane, SALC’s Civil Rights Cluster Programme Manager.

In 2010, Uganda’s Constitutional Court in Andrew Mujuni Mwenda and Another v Attorney General declared the offence of sedition unconstitutional because it was vague and rooted in the purpose that “colonialists did not want to be criticised”. The Uganda Government’s step in repealing these offences is further in line with the decision delivered by the East African Court of Justice in Media Council of Tanzania and 2 Others v Attorney General of Tanzania in a challenge to provisions in Tanzania’s Media Services Act of 2016 which criminalised sedition, criminal defamation and false news. The EACJ ordered the repeal of the offences noting similar calls by the ECOWAS Court and African Commission.

SALC hopes that other African countries shall follow suit and repeal their various vagrancy and sedition offences that infringe on the rights of citizens. SALC implores the Ugandan Government and other African countries to take the initiative also to repeal other offences that continuously violate citizens’ rights based on economic or minority status.