Where has the freedom to create music gone?

Friday May 10 2019

Ugandan musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, is arrested by police on his way to a press conference held to announce the cancelation of his show at Busabala on April 22, 2019. PHOTO | BADRU KATUMBA | AFP


If music be the food of love, play on.'' This is the first line of the play Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare where the speaker is asking for music because he is frustrated in courtship; he wants an abundance of love so that he may lose his appetite for it.

But music goes beyond an expression of frustration in romantic love.

Music has for aeons been universally used as a medium to express the entire spectrum of human feelings. In centuries past, soldiers have marched to their deaths to the rhythm of music.

So why would anyone stop another from making music that expresses their feelings?

Various explanations from immorality to political subversion have been put forth to justify censorship or a total ban.

Freemuse, an independent international organisation defending freedom of artistic expression, recently released its annual report titled, The State of Artistic Freedom 2019: Whose Narratives Count?, giving details of worldwide repression of artistic freedom by governments in the year 2018.


According to Freemuse, censorship was practised in at least 60 countries, affecting 1,807 artists and artworks.

Music, film and visual arts were among the top three targeted art forms. Musicians’ freedom of expression was limited in 55 countries, with one third of all documented cases concerning musicians occurring in Nigeria, Russia and Turkey.

Freemuse also registered on average two attacks on film artistic freedom in cinema per week.

The report gives an in-depth analysis of 673 cases of violations of artistic freedom that occurred in different cultural spheres in 80 countries.

It identifies key challenges to artists’ freedom of expression and points out violation patterns and trends. Additionally, it calls for accountability for these violations.

Freemuse identified 22 countries where artistic freedom has been compromised. These are: Tanzania, Turkey, Uganda, Nigeria, China, Croatia, Cuba, Egypt, Germany, Hungary, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Spain, Ukraine, the US and Uzbekistan.

They were identified in order to draw attention to the alarming trends the occur in them: Either because of the high number of documented violations or clear patterns of suppression of artistic freedoms.

“In other countries, the practice of stifling artists mainly appeared as a mechanism for alleged protection of state laws, public morals, and social and religious norms.

“In these cases, different actors often misused national legislation by wrongfully limiting freedom of expression or suppressing it in the name of the defence of other human rights,” says the report.

And this is where East Africa finds itself today. Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya have all had instances where songs have been banned, artists restricted from performing or jailed for their art.

Obscene words

Ugandan musician Moses Nsubuga aka Viboyo, was arrested on October 4, 2018, for allegedly using obscene words in a song aimed at President Yoweri Museveni, Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga and other government officials.

According to police, Viboyo expresses his displeasure of the long leadership in the song sang in Luganda.

He was also accused of allegedly calling the president “buttocks,” and accusing political leaders of the gruesome murders of Andrew Kayiira and former police spokesman Andrew Felix Kaweesi.


Ugandan musician Moses Nsubuga aka Viboyo who was arrested for allegedly insulting President Yoweri Museveni in a song. PHOTO | COURTESY

Viboyo, who denies he ever composed or even sung the song, was arrested and detained at Jinja Road Police Station in Kampala on charges of “offensive communication.” He was released after several hours in police custody.

“The song wasn’t mine and I don’t even know the title. It was a case of mistaken identity and I wonder how our investigators carry out their work.

The singer mentions ‘boy you are live,’ so the police could have mistaken this for my stage name Viboyo,” he told The EastAfrican.

“I think it was released on a WhatsApp group and was widely shared. I had to tell the police that the song wasn’t mine. But they were bent on arresting me. I was released on a police bond but I have been reporting to the police station even though the officer handling my case does not answer my calls anymore. When he does, he promises to call back but doesn't,” Viboyo says.

In March the same year, David Mugema and his producer Jonathan Muwanguzi were arrested and arraigned in a Kampala court on charges of “offensive communication” under Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act 2011.

They were accused of frustrating the peace of President Yoweri Museveni in their Luganda song titled Mzee Wumula (translated as ‘Take a rest, old man’).

However, in April, the Director of Public Prosecution dropped the charges against them.

The experiences of Viboyo, Mugema and Muwanguzi are part of the pattern of artistic restriction n Uganda that is captured in the report by Freemuse.

Tight control

In Uganda, the report observes that artists are being silenced for their political views through prosecution and cancellation of shows. The charge of “offensive communication” is used disproportionately to silence artistes, especially musicians, for criticising government officials.

The government exercises a tight control over content.

In June of the year in review, security officers in Kitgum district in northern Uganda ordered radio stations not to play Lucky Otim’s song titled Mac Onywalo buru” on grounds that its message is “misleading.”

Otim, popularly known as Bosmic Otim, criticizes politicians and legislators from northern Uganda, especially the opposition converts to the ruling National Resistance Movement in the song Mac Onywalo buru (meaning ‘‘fire produces ash’’ in Dholuo). It frames the politicians as turncoats.

The most brazen government action came in October when the police told popular musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine to cancel his music concert at Namboole National Stadium in Kampala.

Organisers had sought police protection for the show, as demanded by the stadium regulations, but in response, the police claimed that the stadium management was not aware of the planned concert. Police then asked the musician to cancel the concert.

A number of Bobi Wine's concerts were cancelled by the police in 2018. Event organisers and promoters met President Museveni at State House Entebbe to be compensated for the losses incurred in cancelled events.

The president promised them Ush1 billion ($264,781) but the organisers claim they have only received Ush200 million ($52,956).

Political activism

The police accuse Bobi Wine of using music for political activism and argues that political activities are regulated by the Public Order Management Act that requires such events to be held during the day.

The manager of Milege Afro-Jazz Band, Francis Manana Birabi, notes that these laws would make sense if ''they are an industry standard that every stakeholder must follow irrespective of their age, status, popularity or political connection and made for the sole benefit of society and the arts sector in general and the country at large.”

“In cases where national laws are made to target individuals rather than to mitigate a genuine vice or shortcoming in the industry, they are a huge blow to investment,” Birabi adds.

There are also serious concerns about a host of new regulations proposed by the government in the draft Stage Plays and Public Entertainment Bill 2018.

Situation in the region

In Tanzania too, all the violations of artistic freedom documented by Freemuse in the country in 2018 were committed by the government.

According to Freemuse, the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2018 restrict artistic freedom on the grounds of indecency, recommends heavy penalties and or prison sentences.

In November 2018, popular hip-hop artistes Rayvanny and Diamond Platnumz as well as their record label, Wasafi Records, were each fined Tsh9 million ($3,899) for their song Mwanza, deemed inappropriate for public consumption.

The song was banned for containing the Swahili word for “horny” and was deemed too sexually suggestive.

Diamond Platnumz however went ahead and performed the song at a concert and was subsequently banned from performing in Tanzania and travelling to a foreign country for purposes of performing.

The Tanzanian Arts Council, better known by its Swahili acronym Basata (from Baraza la Sanaa la Taifa) claimed the song contravened Tanzanian laws that protect the morals of the country.

This was not the first time that Daimond Platnumz was having a run in with the law. He has a string of songs that have been banned in Tanzania for alleged obscenity.


Tanzanian musician Diamond Platnumz performing in Mombasa, Kenya, on December 27, 2018. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NMG

In February 2018, Basata gazetted new regulations under the National Art Council Act Chapter 204, requiring all musicians, DJs and music promoters to pay Basata between Tsh50,000 and Tsh5 million ($21.6 and $2,166) from July 1, 2018 to acquire an operating licence.

This includes advertising companies that work with artistes too. Further, all artistes are obligated to obtain special permits to perform outside the country.

The Freemuse report says; ‘‘Together, the new regulation seen in Tanzania in 2018 obligate artistes to increase their spending while at the same time reducing the opportunities for artistes to express themselves independently from restrictive and normative standards created by authorities.

‘‘The regulation requiring registration for performing abroad should be cancelled, as it limits freedom of movement and unnecessarily generate barriers to the sharing of cultural expression.

“The registration fee for performing within the country should similarly be abolished or kept to a minimum so it does not become an unnecessary barrier to artistic freedom. The Tanzanian government should revise the regulations and bring them in line with international standards of human rights and freedom of expression,” the report adds.

Popular Tanzanian actress Wema Sepetu was arraigned in court in November of the same year of the Freemuse report for sharing of “sexually explicit” content online.

The charges were based on a video allegedly leaked on Instagram that showed her and a man, whom she referred to as her future husband, kissing in bed.

The actress was fined Tsh10 million ($4,332). In an additional blow, the Film Classification Board indefinitely banned Sepetu from taking part in any film-related activities.

The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) has been responsible for regulating online communications and the broadcasting sectors since 2003, and with issuing, renewing or cancelling licences as well as establishing standards for services and monitoring performances.

In March 2018, the TCRA imposed further restrictions on online content by adopting the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2018, which target not only artists but also bloggers, online forums, social media as well as online radio and television.

The newly introduced regulations contain broad and vague terms on indecency that severely restrict artistic content, and carry heavy penalties of a minimum jail term of 12 months and/or minimum fines of Tshs5million ($2,166) if violated.

Online material is prohibited from containing content deemed obscene, which is defined as “content which gives rise to a feeling of disgust by reason of its lewd portrayal and is essentially offensive to one’s prevailing notion of decency and modesty, with a possibility of having a negative influence and corrupting the mind of those easily influenced.”