The co-director of a play banned in Uganda has told RFI he’s concerned about the repercussions of continuing to stage his production. But he believes Uganda’s Media Council is on shaky legal ground. John Ssegawa, co-author of State of the Nation, says the Ugandan authorities are limiting freedom of expression.
“We have legal representation. If they arrest us, then we can talk about the law,” says Ssegawa.
Earlier this week Uganda’s Media Council ordered that performances of State of the Nation, which is critical of the government, be stopped until its content was reviewed.
“It has been on for about a month now. If they wanted to preview it, they would come and do it,” Ssegawa says in response to the ban. The staging of the production was originally timed to coincide with the celebration of Uganda’s anniversary of independence on 9 October. It had been running at the National Theatre in Kampala.
Ssegawa says the production company is willing to discuss parts of the play that are an issue for the government’s media watchdog. However, stopping the production altogether is not an option.
“If there are a few lines, then we can discuss it,” Ssegawa concedes. “But we don’t just stop, because we employ a lot of people and we have bills to pay.”
State of the Nation charts Uganda’s political history from 1962 up to today. It is critical of the government, Ssegawa admits, but also touches on the government’s achievements. There are characters that could be construed as being government officials as well as the opposition.
“It’s just an abstract form of art,” says Ssegawa, denying that the theatrical production is intended to incite people, has sectarian overtones or aims to ridicule Ugandan officials.
Ssegawa, of the Afri-Talent company, is anxious that this ban could signal the death of theatre in Uganda as well other forms of artistic expression.
“There is a lot of comedy in Kampala,” he says. “The characters that are comic represent a few government officials here in Kampala. So are you going to stop everything?”
Drama is “small-scale” in Kampala, according to Ssegawa. He thinks the authorities should concentrate their efforts on television channels that screen programmes that have a bad influence on young people and radio stations that play “not so good music”.
When asked whether Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni could identify himself in the play, Ssegawa is cautious. Not wanting to bring the Ugandan head of state into the argument, he instead says the ban does not have anything to do with the presidency’s seat of power, State House.
Other activists for freedom of expression are more outspoken in their criticism of the government. Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala of the Ugandan Human Rights Network for Journalists, says this latest ban is indicative of a worrying trend.
“Of late, things are becoming tricky,” says Wokulira Ssebaggala. “Journalists have been forced out of their employment, others have been taken to court, they’re facing trumped-up charges. So now the media is done, they’re targeting other avenues of expression.”
State of the Nation is the latest play to fall foul of pressure from the authorities. British theatre producer David Cecil was recently arrested for staging a production about gay people without permission. His play The River and the Mountain highlighted the difficulties of being gay in Uganda.
Cecil was released on bail and ordered to surrender his passport. Homosexual acts are illegal in Uganda.
“The first one [play] was banned by the media council,” says activist Wokulira Ssebaggala. “It was highlighting the state of the LGBT community, it was portraying how things are in Uganda, how they’re being targeted by the government.”
For Ssegawa the Ugandan authorities might be concerned that State of the Nation could help galvanise the opposition movement. Opposition leader Kizza Besigye came to see the play and “liked it”, he says.
Besigye, the leader of the Forum for Democratic Change party, has been detained several times for his walk-to-work protests. Is his attendance at a performance of State of the Nation part of the problem?
“Isn’t he supposed to watch a production,” Ssegawa jokes.