Uganda arrests pastor for denying coronavirus outbreak on television

Uganda church
A church bell hangs from a tree branch outside a Catholic church and a school in Odek village, Uganda. |

A controversial pastor in Uganda could face up to seven years of prison after being arrested for allegedly denying on television that there is a coronavirus outbreak in Africa.

Augustine Yiga, the pastor of Revival Christian Church in Kawaala, was charged Monday for the alleged crime of committing an act likely to spread infectious disease. Yiga made remarks that were broadcast on several television stations including BBS TV and Spark TV last weekend. 

According to the Ugandan daily news outlet New Vision, the 43-year-old father of eight was remanded back into police custody by magistrate Timothy Lumunye for violating section 171 of the Ugandan penal code criminalizing conduct that is likely to spread infectious disease.

Prosecutors allege that Yiga said during televised remarks that “there is no coronavirus in Uganda and Africa.” Yiga’s comments come as there are at least 48 cases of novel coronavirus in Uganda as of Saturday with no related deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center

Worldwide, there have been over 1 million confirmed cases and over 60,100 related deaths since the start of the outbreak in December.

Kampala Metropolitan police spokesperson Patrick Onyango told media outlets that Yiga’s assertion undermines efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 and the Ministry of Health guidelines for citizens. 

On Monday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni ordered a 14-day national lockdown. 

“The actions of Pastor Yiga promotes the spread of the COVID-19 and can, therefore, be considered as a direct attack on the people of the Republic of Uganda,” Onyango was quoted as saying. “We appeal to the public to desist from making false or alarming utterances concerning over COVID-19 and disregard information not from authorized government structures.”

According to The Daily Monitor, Yiga denied the charges when he appeared on court on Monday. 

Although Yiga requested bail on grounds that he is diabetic, prosecutors reportedly opposed the request on grounds that they needed more time to carry out the investigation.

The pastor was remanded back to detention until April 4, according to The Daily Monitor. 

Pastor Wilson Bugembe of Light of the World Ministries in Kampala said in televised remarks that Yiga was arrested for “speaking recklessly.” However, Bugembe issued a plea to Uganda police to pardon Yiga. 

“From a long time ago, he has been speaking carelessly,” Bugembe was quoted as saying through a translator. “So please just pardon and forgive. Just tell him not to do it again.”

According to PML Daily, the Uganda Communications Commission has written letters to BBS TV, NTV and Spark TV asking them to explain why regulatory action should not be taken against them for allegedly violating Section 171 of the penal code by airing misleading remarks about coronavirus. 

In its program “Ebyokya ku Wiikendi” on March 28, BBS TV is accused of broadcasting Yiga’s statements on coronavirus. Spark TV is said to be responsible for comments Yiga made last Friday on its “Live Wire” program. 

As for NTV, it is accused of allowing Simon Senyonga to make objectionable comments about the virus outbreak on its “Morning @NTV” program on March 26. 

Several other pastors in Uganda have also been arrested in recent weeks for defying the presidential directive banning religious gatherings during the coronavirus outbreak. 

Last month, PML Daily reported that a pastor and at least 30 churchgoers at Blessed Feelings Church International in Kajjansi were arrested for participating in a Wednesday church service.

Advocates are also warning that it appears that Ugandan authorities might be using the COVID-19 restrictions to target sexual minorities. This week, Ugandan police charged over 20 LGBT individuals living at a shelter in the outskirts of Kampala with disobeying rules on social distancing and a ban on large gatherings. 

In Uganda, homosexuality is banned and can be punishable by up to life in prison. 

According to Onyango, the group was charged with disobedience of lawful order and committing neglectful acts likely to spread infection of disease. 

In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Onyango denied claims made by LGBT advocates that the government targeted LGBT individuals over their sexual orientation. 

"We still have offenses of unnatural sex in our law books," Onyango said. "We would charge them with that law, but we are charging them with those counts as you can see."

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has pressured at least 69 governments worldwide to decriminalize homosexuality. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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