In recent years in East Africa, govenments from Kenya to Tanzania increasingly have tried to restrict media freedom, silence political criticism and hamper the activities of civil society groups. As a number of these countries gear up for elections in the next two years, the protection of independent civil society is critical to safeguarding democracy.

Uganda has become the latest theater in this struggle. Uganda introduced a bill that requires that nongovernmental organizations “not engage in any activity which is … contrary to the dignity of the people of Uganda.”

Such vague language gives the government wide berth to monitor and control the activities of organizations, many of which provide essential services. NGOs would be required to register with an established NGO board, which can revoke a permit at any time if it is in the “public interest to refuse to register the organization.”

Leaders of organizations that operate without a permit are subject to fines, prosecution and even prison time. Such harsh penalties should be scrapped, along with the provisions enabling outsize government interference with independent NGOs.

The Obama administration last year vehemently opposed Uganda’s anti-gay laws, even cutting or redirecting millions in aid and imposing sanctions. But on the NGO bill, the White House has remained relatively quiet, although the U.S. is Uganda’s largest bilateral donor, with $750 million going to the country annually. Much of that assistance is implemented via NGOs.

Uganda’s parliament has indefinitely deferred an expected debate on the NGO bill. The delay gives the White House a chance to stand up for Uganda’s civil society.