Threats to Artistic Freedom in Uganda
Three Areas of Concern in the UCC’s New Rules on Stage Plays and Public Performance
For the past few months, many Ugandan artists started raising their voices against a new regulation aimed at the arts and cultural sector. The Stage Play and Public Entertainment Rules threaten to stifle the creative arts by limiting artistic expression. In the words of one Ugandan comedian, it just does not make sense for the government to use regulators to “micro-manage everything artists do.”
The Stage Play and Public Entertainment Rules are part of a series of regulations that regulate communications. Civil society was not given an opportunity to provide feedback before the regulations were issued. The Stage Play and Public Entertainment Rules raise three concerns:
1. EXCESSIVE POWER TO CENSOR ARTISTS
The regulations allow the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) to determine what content is acceptable by requiring artists to submit their creations for prior review and by imposing a stringent permit system for stage plays and public entertainments. Under the regulations, the Commission has broad discretion to outlaw artistic expression, effectively making the government the arbiter of the truth. Imposing prior censorship of content not only falls short of international best practices it also exposes the artistic sector to arbitrary regulation and unwarranted censorship.
Why is this a problem?
- Artistic expression and creativity are an important aspect of freedom of expression and are protected by international human rights law. The regulation gives the UCC the power to censor content as it sees fit, infringing on artists’ rights to express themselves freely.
- Art provides a vehicle for reflecting on society. Through art, people can express grief in a non-violent manner, critically engage with politics, memorialize the past, express values and ethical commitments, and draw attention to concerns within society. Censorship gives the government the power to suppress these expressions and limits public access to important messages conveyed through art.
- As one example, comedians often resort to satire and sarcasm as tools to entertain the public. These two genres naturally thrive on a deliberate distortion of facts and may leave certain people feeling provoked, attacked or ridiculed. But this does not constitute valid justification for regulators to seek a review of comedians’ scripts prior to their performances. Such a requirement would signal the end of comedy as an art.
2. MANDATORY PERMITS FOR STAGE PLAYS AND PUBLIC PERFORMANCES
The Stage Play and Public Entertainment Rules require artists to obtain permits before they can perform. Criteria for obtaining a permit are not provided in the rules and it is unclear how long it takes to obtain one. The rules also require artists to submit a script of their performances and prohibit advertising their plays without prior permission.
Why is this a problem?
- By requiring a permit and the submission of a script, this rule limits the types of performance accessible to artists and the public. For example, performances expressing dissent vis-à-vis the government’s policies or those that, for some reason, the government does not favor, will likely be blocked. Worse, improvisation, which by definition, involves expressions without a script, would be impossible under this rule.
3. DISPROPORTIONATE PENALTIES AND CRIMINAL SANCTIONS
Performing without a permit is a criminal offense under these regulations. The Rules impose fines up to two thousand shillings or imprisonment up to six months.
Why is this a problem?
- The threat of imprisonment will undoubtedly deter artists and performers from freely planning and organizing events, leading to self-censorship. This chilling-effect will lead artists to steer away from content that could be deemed controversial, undermining freedom of expression.
- International law prohibits the imposition of criminal sanctions, such as jail time, for non-compliance with regulations like this one.
The Uganda National Cultural Center, the statutory body tasked with preserving and promoting Uganda’s cultural heritage, has criticized the UCC regulations on the grounds that they are censoring the creative sector. 
Freedom of expression is an indispensable tool for a thriving civil society. For those interested in the topic, ICNL’s Global Trends analysis of legal restrictions on the Freedom of Expression around the world and the Special Rapporteur’s report on artistic freedom provide more in-depth information.
Published: October 19, 2020