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In Uganda, when does brash talk radio become sedition?

Radio talk show host Andrew Mwenda angered Uganda's government after controversial remarks.

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Few prisoners at Kampala's central police station embraced their detention this month to emulate freedom fighters such as Nelson Mandela.

But outspoken journalist Andrew Mwenda was no ordinary prisoner.

As political editor and columnist for the independent Daily Monitor, and as talk show host for the paper's radio station, KFM, Mr. Mwenda has earned a reputation as a sharp critic of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

But Mwenda crossed a line August 10, when he blamed the Ugandan government for the death of Sudanese Vice President John Garang, who died last month in a helicopter crash.

Uganda's broadcasting council took KFM off the air the next day, later saying his program was likely to lead to violence. Then the government jailed him for three days. Mwenda was freed on bail last week, but he now faces charges of sedition, which could entail a five-year jail term.

Mwenda's case dramatizes what media watchdogs say is a worrisome trend here: the scaling back of press freedom ahead of political change. The upcoming March election is the first one to be fought on party lines since 1980. Analysts say Mr. Museveni is becoming more authoritarian as that date approaches.

But Mwenda isn't backing down. And the Daily Monitor's lawyers say the sedition law is an archaic, colonial-era relic and they plan to challenge its constitutionality.

The government's indignation at Mwenda's comments may have been undermined by Museveni himself. Several days before the offending program, he traveled to southern Sudan and said the crash of the Ugandan helicopter may not have been an accident, as initially claimed.

That explanation, says Joel Barkan, a professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in East African politics, is intended to avoid the "specter of the junk- helicopter deal."

That deal refers to a corruption case from the late 1990s where the government spent millions of dollars on four helicopters from Belarus that could not fly.

Addressing the country hours before Mwenda's August 10 program, Museveni blasted the journalist and threatened to close down the Daily Monitor and two other papers, calling them "vultures."


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