By Charity M. Ngabirano
“What we are losing in this country is something called humanity and we should take it seriously. If somebody is sick, why declare that person dead? I thought the usual thing would be to pray for that person to recover. What is happening to our country?” Parliament Speaker Jacob Oulanyah wondered in July last year.
He had just returned from the United Kingdom. Oulanyah’s absence had sparked rumours of ill health and death, barely two months after he had been made Speaker.
Before his death was announced by President Yoweri Museveni on Sunday, March 20, speculations of his demise were rife. Some people had gone ahead to edit his details on Wikipedia, to indicate that he had died.
This prompted the Government to start looking for the culprits.
Even after Oulanyah’s eventual death, more speculation is going around on what could have possibly caused it.
This has forced the Police to warn members of the public to stop speculating.
The former Speaker had been admitted in a hospital in the US for specialised treatment when he died.
Other bigwigs declared dead before their time
Oulanyah is not the first notable Ugandan to have been declared dead while still alive.
Others include Democratic Party president Norbert Mao, the First Family, especially President Yoweri Museveni and First Son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, as well as former Makindye West MP Hussein Kyanjo of the JEEMA party.
“I have received numerous calls to the effect that I am dead, but I’m not dead. I don’t know the intention of such rumours and where they are coming from. I am in good health,” Kyanjo told New Vision a decade ago.
On his part, Mao jokingly responded to his death announcers, saying: “Mao dead? Even me I got the news. I want to assure you there is no network the other side of the grave. So I must be alive…”
Last year, Museveni warned social media users against spreading false information of his demise.
“Apparently, social media has been saying that Museveni is dead. They (security forces) should locate very quickly the one who tells such a story,” he said.
Whereas Ugandans have the rights and freedom of expression and speech as guaranteed by the Constitution, this freedom has overtime been abused in various forms, with the most common being the spread of false news.
What does the law say?
In law, every person is entitled to his good name and to the esteem in which he is held by others. Any person whose good name is tampered with, without any lawful justification, can proceed to the courts of law and sue on grounds of defamation.
In Uganda, Section 180 (1) of the Penal Code Act defines a defamatory matter as, “… matter likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing that person to hatred, contempt or ridicule or likely to damage any person in his or her profession by an injury to his or her reputation.”
Defamation is more than just an insult or derogatory statement. It dwells more on how people are going to judge you because of those words and less of how you feel about those words in your individual capacity.
Any person, therefore, who sues for defamation must prove to court that; the statement was false, that the statement has capacity to harm their reputation in the eyes of right thinking members of society, that the statement refereed to the claimant and identified them directly or indirectly and finally, that this statement was published/broadcast (communicated) to a third party.
Types of defamation
Defamation can take two forms; libel and slander.
Libel refers to a defamatory statement of a permanent nature, for example, writings or pictures.
Section 179 of the Penal Code Act states that; Any person who by print, writing, painting, effigy or by any means otherwise that solely gestures, spoken or other sounds, unlawfully publishes any defamatory matter, concerning another person with intent to defame that person commits the misdemeanor termed libel.”
Slander, on the other hand, is defamation in a short-lived nature, especially spoken word.
Defamation attracts a prison sentence of three years.
In defamation cases, the defendant has the burden to prove their innocence. The defendant could, therefore, argue that;
i) The statement was as a matter of fact truth/fact (or justification)
ii) That the statement was a fair comment on a matter of public interest or,
iii) That the statement was made on a privileged occasion. This covers matters published by, for instance, the President, his orders or Parliament, Speaker, etc. However, the statement should not have been made out of spite or ill will.
All in all, we ought to be careful what we say about others, and avoid being reckless on our cyber spaces by jumping onto trending topics, with unverified sources. A simple statement could land you into big trouble.
The writer is an advocate
Note: The article is intended to provide information about general statements of law and is not intended to create an advocate-client relationship. Contact a lawyer on specific legal problems