The Act, often called the “POM Act,” was proposed in 2009 and approved by a parliament controlled by President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM). The main goal of the Act was protecting public order and maintaining safety. The Act itself states that its underlying principle is to “regulate the exercise of the freedom to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peacefully and unarmed and to petition in accordance with Articles 29(1)d and 43 of the Constitution.” Supporters and the police said that it was practical and necessary to prevent protests from turning violent, disrupting businesses, or resulting in death. The Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi added that the Act restricted the police from infringing on peoples’ fundamental human rights. However, some hypothesized that the Act was really intended to stifle the freedoms of association and expression and undermine civil society work.
Summary of the Act
The Act sets out the process in which public meetings must be organised and held. organisers have to submit notice of and information about a meeting or assembly to the police between 3 and 15 days before a public meeting. Meetings can only take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Members of the public need permission to enter restricted places including Parliament, the State House, State Lodges, international airports, and the courts.
It is an offense to hold a public meeting without meeting the notice and approval requirements first, or if the details of the event differ from those specified in the notice.
The police have 48 hours to respond to public meeting requests with either approval or disapproval of the public meeting. They may deny permission to hold the meeting if there is another public meeting at that time and location, or the venue would be unsuitable for purposes of crowd control, or if the meeting would interfere with lawful business. Police may also disperse spontaneous public meetings where another meeting is taking place at the same venue, the venue is unsuitable, or it will interfere with lawful business. The police are responsible for providing security to participants and other members of the public, ensuring fairness and equal treatment of parties by giving consistent responses to similar requests, carrying out risk assessments, identifying an appropriate traffic plan, directing traffic, and dispersing defiant or unruly crowds. Organisers are responsible for making sure participants adhere to the required criteria and assembly plan, cooperating with police, ensuring that statements made to the public do not conflict with any law, and ensuring the meeting ends by 7:00 p.m.
Breaking the law comes with prison time, with maximums ranging from one to two years, and/or a monetary fine.
Parliament passed the Public Order Management Act despite “fierce criticism from religious leaders, opposition MPs and the public as well as rights groups.” President Museveni's supporters and police claimed the bill was a practical measure to prevent protests from becoming violent or disrupting businesses.
The POM Act gives police tremendous authority and discretion. It also creates hurdles that organisers must overcome before holding public meetings, including planning in advance, providing all the relevant information to officers, and making sure the gathering stays on course. Furthermore, the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. time limit is strict. The Act also limits access to important government zones where people would be likely to want to protest. Although the Act requires permission to be given fairly, there is room for abuse of power and targeting of disfavoured groups. For example, reports show that opposition leader Kizza Besigye was arrested multiple times for trying to organise protests about the cost of living. Ugandan police also arrested another opposition politician, Bobi Wine, firing teargas at supporters at his rally. He then faced charges for violating the Act.
In 2020, Uganda’s Constitutional Court nullified part of the Act. The Court declared Section 8, which gave the Inspector General of Police power to prevent or stop public gatherings, illegal and unconstitutional. Justice Cheborion Barishaki ruled that the Section violated Article 43(2)(c) of Uganda’s Constitution which requires that limitations on rights and freedoms be acceptable and demonstrably justifiable. He stated that police do not know what protests may or may not result in breach of peace, so gatherings should not need permission beforehand provided they are peaceful, and police should simply deploy personnel to make sure the gathering remains peaceful. However, there was some disagreement over the meaning of the decision and whether the entire Act was void, or just Section 8. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, called for Parliament to repeal the rest of the law.