Ugandan rights groups say proposed law could gag them for polls

By Elias Biryabarema KAMPALA (Reuters) - Civil society organizations in Uganda say a proposed new law to regulate their activities is intended to stifle freedoms and blunt criticism of government ahead of presidential elections next year. Veteran leader Yoweri Museveni is seeking another term in office in elections due to be held between March and February 2016, a move that will potentially extend his rule to 35 years. He faces a challenge from popular opposition leader Kizza Besigye and his own former prime minister and ally, Amama Mbabazi. Critics say the government is using a range of tactics including harsh legislation and repeated arrests of Museveni's opponents and their supporters to intimidate the opposition. The law, currently being scrutinized by a parliamentary committee, requires all civil society organizations in the country to be registered afresh. An oversight body, whose members are appointed by the interior minister, can refuse to register an NGO “where it is in the public interest to refuse to register the organization” or “for any other reason that the Board may deem relevant”. Civil society organizations say such language is ambiguous and that the government is likely to exploit it to clamp down on organizations they think are critical of government. "The timing just as elections are around the corner is suspect," said Cissy Kagaba, executive director of anti-corruption coalition Uganda (ACCU). "The law doesn't define what things like 'public interest' is and state agents can do anything to an undesirable NGO under that name." A key western ally, Museveni has been credited with returning economic stability to Uganda after year of turmoil but critics say his authoritarian rule and failure to check runaway corruption is causing a collapse of key public services. His refusal to give up power has also irked some of his western backers. Officials have often expressed anger at NGOs' portrayal of government failures and accused them of inciting the people against the government. Nicholas Opio, executive director of Chapter Four, a charity that champions civil liberties, said NGOs had become a key platform for people to express dissatisfaction with government. "The new law presumes that someone needs registration to be able to freely express themselves and that's deeply troubling." Deputy Uganda government spokesperson Shaban Bantariza denied the legislation was connected to upcoming elections and said it was instead to make charities operate within the law and in the interests of Uganda. "Some NGOs have operated without being registered... and such NGOs have been misused by those who are against Uganda." (Reporting by Elias Biryabarema)