Ugandan authorities should release journalists Dickson Mubiru and Alirabaki Sengooba, drop all criminal charges against them, and take steps to reform laws that can be used to stifle journalism, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.

On June 20 the Buganda Road Chief Magistrates Court in the capital, Kampala, charged Mubiru, managing editor of the privately owned news website theGrapeVine, and Sengooba, a reporter with the outlet, with publishing information without a broadcasting license, according to their lawyer, Nasser Kibazo, and a copy of the charge sheet reviewed by CPJ. 

Authorities cited a May 15 report that alleged a “clash” between a High Court judge and a lawyer over the handling of a case. The journalists pleaded not guilty to the charges, Kibazo told CPJ, adding that they are expected back in court on July 9 and were remanded to Luzira Prison, also in Kampala. 

The journalists appeared before the same court on June 21, where they were charged with another count of the same infraction in connection to a June 13 report by Sengooba about state corruption involving parliamentarians,according to Kibazo and a copy of the charge sheet reviewed by CPJ. This charge was transferred to another chamber of the same court, and the trial was adjourned until July 4, when they are expected to take a plea.

Broadcasting without a license is punishable with imprisonment of up to one year and/or a fine of 500,000 shillings (US$135) under Section 27 of Uganda’s 2013 communications law. Kibazo told CPJ it was unclear why authorities were charging the journalists under a section of the law that criminalizes airing of television and radio programming without a license as the articles were published on a website.

“The spurious charges authorities have leveled against Ugandan journalists Dickson Mubiru and Alirabaki Sengooba are designed to ensure that they spend time behind bars in retaliation for their critical reporting,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Muthoki Mumo, in Nairobi. “Authorities should release these journalists unconditionally and review problematic legislation to ensure that it cannot be wielded to silence the media. “

Kibazo told CPJ that he believes the case “doesn’t have anything to do with the license” but is an “attack on the freedom of expression” and “their right to practice their profession because what the state is really interested in is the source of information for these people.”

Police arrested the journalists on June 18 when they responded to a June 17 summons at the Central Police Station in Kampala, according to Kibazo and media reports. Police questioned them about their sources for the May 15 and June 13 reports, Kibazo told CPJ. 

The local press rights group Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-U) condemned the journalists’ arrest and charges in a June 20 statement.

In a May 18 statement, the judiciary said that the report of a clash between a High Court judge and a lawyer was false and “should be disregarded and treated with utmost contempt.”

Judiciary spokesperson James Ereemye declined to discuss CPJ’s questions sent via messaging application and email asking whether the judiciary or any individual judge were complainants in the case against the journalists.

Parliamentary spokesperson Chris Obore told CPJ that legally, parliament could not be a complainant in a criminal case but he could not speak for individual legislators and referred CPJ to prosecutors for further comment.

Jacquelyn Okui, the spokesperson for the public prosecutor’s office, told CPJ via messaging app that the charges had been filed against Mubiru and Sengooba “on the basis of evidence,” and it is up to the courts to determine if the case continues. Okui said the complainants would testify in open court.

Patrick Onyango, spokesperson for the Kampala Metropolitan Police, did not respond to CPJ’s calls and WhatsApp messages.

In January 2016, Ugandan authorities arrested and detained Mubiru and another Ugandan editor for 24 hours for refusing to reveal a source before releasing them without charge.