By Charles Etukuri
High Court judge Musa Ssekana has directed lawyer Male Mabirizi to pay sh300m after he was found guilty of contempt of court.
This was after the judge ruled that Mabirizi’s statements and posts on his Twitter handle @MaleMabiriziHKK and Facebook page Uganda People’s Interests were in contempt of court.
Ssekana also issued a strong warning to Mabirizi to stop attacking judicial officers in future and directed that he pays for the costs of the application.
He noted that Mabirizi made a series of contemptuous utterances on his Twitter handle and Facebook page, which were calculated to bring the then presiding judge into contempt and to lower his judicial authority.
The ruling follows an application by the Attorney General that the court issues a declaration that Mabirizi was in contempt of court and that he be committed to civil prison for contempt of court.
This was after Mabirizi lost a case Miscellaneous Cause No 287 of 2021 challenging the decision of Capital Markets Authority to approve Initial Public Offering (IPO) of MTN (U) Ltd.
On November 15, 2021, Justice Phillip Odoki delivered a ruling on preliminary points of law, which had been raised in his application.
The Attorney General noted that following the delivery of the ruling, Mabirizi made contemptuous comments and utterances on his Twitter handle and Facebook page, which were calculated to bring the then presiding judge into contempt and to lower his judicial authority
Mabirizi argued that the application for contempt was intended to muzzle his freedom of speech and expression on court processes.
But Ssekana said: “I do not agree with this assertion, the freedom guaranteed by the Constitution should never be used to attack judicial officers in execution of the constitutional mandate and their independence ought to be protected as provided under Article 128(2); No person or authority shall interfere with the courts or judicial officers in exercise of their judicial functions.”
The judge noted that freedom of speech and expression is regarded as the “lifeblood of democracy”. He observed that Article 29(1)(a) of the Constitution guarantees this freedom to every person in Uganda.
“This right, however, is not absolute, and is subject to certain qualifications i.e. reasonable restrictions on the grounds set out in Article 43. The Constitution, which has given its citizens right to freedom of speech and expression, has given certain powers to the Judiciary to guard against the misuse of the same, to prevent the right to freedom of speech and expression being so exercised that it damages the dignity of the Courts or interferes with the ‘administration of justice.”
Ssekana ruled: “Any conduct attributing improper motive to a judge or any scurrilous abuse to a judge will amount to scandalising the court. Scurrilous abuse of a judge or court, or attacks on the personal character of a judge, are punishable contempt. Punishment is inflicted to prevent mischief, which undermines or impairs the authority of the court. That is why the court regards with particular seriousness the allegations of partiality or bias on the part of the judge or a court.”
He said: “A powerful judicial system is a condition precedent for a healthy democracy. If browbeating the court, flagrant violation of professional ethics and uncultured conduct is tolerated that would result in ultimate destruction of a system without which no democracy can survive. When there is a deliberate attempt to scandalise the court, it shakes the confidence of the litigant public in the system, the damage is caused to the fair name of the Judiciary”.
The judge said if a litigant or a lawyer is permitted to malign a judge with a view to get a favourable order, administration of justice would become a casualty and the rule of law could receive a setback.
“The judge has to act without any fear thus no one can be allowed to terrorise or intimidate the judges with a view to secure orders of one’s choice. In no civilised system of administration of justice, this can be permitted,” Ssekana observed.