Ugandan comedians Marcelo Mbabaali, Peter Sssaabakaaki (Omuzinyuuzi), Gold Ki Matono, aka Opeto, and Julius Sserwanja, aka Kidomoole of the Bizonto group were detained on July 24, 2020 for a skit that was critical of the appointment of public officials solely based on their ethnic identity.
In the skit, they argued that President Yoweri Museveni and several government officials in leading institutions of managing detentions, elections, law enforcement and finance all came from the same region in western Uganda.
The government said the satirical skit sought to “deliberately promote sectarianism and cause hatred during an election period.”
The comedians were detained for four days and released on condition that they regularly avail themselves to the police. Their equipment, phones and uniforms, are yet to be returned.
“More than 10 armed men came to our work place looking for [us],” said director of Bizonto Comedy, Julius Sserwanja.
Members of the Bizonto Comedy group, popular musician turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, writer and academic Stella Nyanzi, and author Kakwenza Rukimbashaija are among creatives arrested for various "crimes" in 2020 in Uganda.
Their predicament is captured in the 2021 State of Artistic Freedom Report, published by Freemuse. The report documented 978 acts of violations of artistic freedom in 2020 in 89 countries and online spaces.
According to the report, artistes who addressed political issues were targeted under the guise of Covid-19 regulations, but also for “promoting sectarianism.”
“We did not agree with the sectarianism charges because that was not our intention. Our video was only informative and educative,” Sserwanja said.
The group was re-arrested on March 5 and the police said the Director of Public Prosecutions had sanctioned their file for allegations of promoting sectarianism and offensive communication.
The quartet were arraigned at Buganda Road Magistrate’s Court in Kampala on March 5, and charged with publishing a video containing information likely to cause discontent or disaffection against the Banyankole tribe. They denied the charges and were granted a cash bail of Ush100,000 ($27) each by the presiding magistrate Asuman Muhumuza. Their case was adjourned to April 8 pending the completion of investigations.
Parliamentary election candidate, writer and academic Stella Nyanzi was arrested twice last July for convening gatherings that allegedly violated Covid-19 regulations. One gathering was a press conference on the economic impact of lockdown on traders and the other was on the death of a student at the hands of police for defying a Covid-19 curfew. She fled to Kenya in February this year and is seeking political asylum.
Author Kakwenza Rukimbashaija was also arrested twice in 2020. In April, he was detained for seven days under Covid-19-related accusations of “an act aimed to spread a disease.” He believes he was arrested because of his novel The Greedy Barbarians, which talks about high level corruption in a fictitious country. Although his case was dismissed, he was rearrested in September and held for three days on charges of “inciting violence and promoting sectarianism.” This time, the questioning centred on his book Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous in which he details torture that he claims he suffered while detained in April. He was released on condition that he report to the police weekly.
In its 2021 report, Freemuse recorded a high number of violations on artistic freedom, with Covid-19 weaponised against freedom of expression and peaceful protest.