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Critics of the land law changes should speak

By Vision Reporter

Added 10th January 2008 03:00 AM

The desire by the Government to lead, direct, control and influence public debate on major policy issues is understandable, particularly when opponents and critics are mainly driven by overt and blatant sectarian, superficial, and sometimes criminal tendencies.

The desire by the Government to lead, direct, control and influence public debate on major policy issues is understandable, particularly when opponents and critics are mainly driven by overt and blatant sectarian, superficial, and sometimes criminal tendencies.

By Ofwono Opondo

The desire by the Government to lead, direct, control and influence public debate on major policy issues is understandable, particularly when opponents and critics are mainly driven by overt and blatant sectarian, superficial, and sometimes criminal tendencies.

However, the perennial failure by most government departments to provide accurate and timely information to stakeholders and the general public about upcoming policy proposals undermines and stifles genuine democratic engagement, and clump down on dissenters simply devalues the democratisation.

The shallow discourse during the 2005 constitutional amendments, Mabira Forest reserve, financial support to private investors, public land allocations and the current land debate are testimonies to the inadequacies of information to the public, which ought to be corrected.

The struggles between the Government and various quarters of dissent-the media, political and social opposition groups like Buganda’s feudal Mengo establishment over the proposed land law are battles progressives must fight.

I hold that the small intolerant and extremist clique of self-interests at Mengo doesn’t represent much progress for Buganda or Uganda, and as such should be vigorously educated, exposed and opposed until they change course.

That clique is merely exploiting mass primary and secondary ignorance to whip up misinformation and discontent against an otherwise good land policy proposals because they stand to lose.

Remember they even opposed immunisation of children in Buganda.

For a century now, that group has controlled land and other resources in Buganda but never put it to any meaningful use except as middle-age speculators.

In spite of huge tracks of land, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi and team cannot show any real modern estate, livestock and agricultural farm, forest reserve, or tourism sector of pride or economic sense.

However, the unjustified Police questioning, arrests, and untenable prosecution of these pseudo critics of the Government and public policies undermines our democratic standards.

Rather than Police summons and arrests, we should engage these detractors through the democratic space-Parliament, local councils, public debate, and in the media. Police summons give them unjustified political life support!

While the Government can create laws and institutions to promote and protect public order, we should remember the adage “where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarcely call anything his own.”

Censorship, whose genesis is an invisible assumption of infallibility, is sometimes nurtured by false fears of the powers of ideas that challenge and censure the existing order.

As we build a free and democratic society, public officials must know and be open to criticism of themselves and policies they pursue.

Any attempt to stifle or fetter such criticism amounts to insidious and objectionable political censorship.

It should also be obvious to NRM that its political opponents have legitimate right to undermine public confidence in its stewardship to make it un-electable in future, and our duty should be to fight back and explain with facts and figures rather than gag debate.

The recent creation of a special department for “political and media offences” within the Police force must be put to public scrutiny to forestall possible abuse under the guise of protecting public interest.

It is an anti-democratic vestige of British colonialism, UPC and Idi Amin fascism like the outdated criminal libel and sedition laws.

Freedom of expression is not absolute and under international law governments are entitled to restrict expression to protect public order, when attacks are in bad faith or baseless.

I contend that extremist views being propagated by Mengo over land and other issues constitute mere advocacy against policies they consider repugnant, which should be left to float.

In fact, the Government is obliged to protect peaceful expression of ideas however offensive they maybe.

Even if Mengo’s intention is to provoke anger, ill-will, and contempt and incite resistance to the proposals, they can still be handled effectively through educating the masses as has been done before.

They sound very ridiculous to believe. They cross the red line when they cause actual violence and other criminal acts.

The limits of permissible criticism are wider with regard to government and politicians than private persons.

In a democracy government actions must be subjected to tighter scrutiny not only by Parliament and Judiciary but also the media and public opinion.

Furthermore, the dominance of the Government makes it necessary for it to display restraint in resorting to criminal proceedings, particularly where there other means to reply unjustified attacks and criticisms of its adversaries or the media.

In fact uttering and publishing allegations on matters of serious public concern based on widely held public opinion, rumours, and stories already in public domain like the land question with factual support to the allegations stated can be challenged but not criminalised.

Let noble ideas come to us from all sides as Plato famously wrote Areopagitica, “Give me liberty to know, to utter and argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The writer is the deputy spokesperson of the NRM

Critics of the land law changes should speak

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