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Uganda: Press Freedom Diminishing as Elections Near

This post is part of our special coverage Uganda: Walk to Work Protests.

Uganda walks a fine line when it comes to press freedom. At times, it is amazing the things that journalists are allowed to write or broadcast in criticism of the government. Then, suddenly, someone will cross that fine line and find himself or herself in jail, or worse. Many see a steady decline in press freedom in Uganda, particularly with the 2011 elections approaching.

International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) reported on two journalists beaten while covering a campaign rally in Lira in January:

Lira, 22/Jan/2011 – Michael Kakumirizi, a “Red Pepper” publications photojournalist, was mobbed by suspected supporters of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party while covering an opposition presidential candidate's campaign rally in the Lango sub-region.

Francis Tumwekwasize, a former WBS TV journalist now affiliated with the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) Press Unit, was also beaten. The IPC is a coalition of opposition political parties that nominated retired Colonel Dr. Kiiza Besigye as their candidate for the Ugandan presidency.

The journalists were roughed up by the suspected NRM supporters, who accused them of taking their pictures while they were allegedly bribing voters at the Aloi Police Post, in the newly created Alebeatong district, in an attempt to keep residents away from Dr. Kizza Besigye's 19 January rally in the area. When a camera flash went off, the NRM supporters realised that there were journalists among a group of residents they had called to the Aloi Police Post to receive money.

In a more recent release, Human Rights Watch and IFEX draw attention to 16 activists and journalists who have been arrested and harassed for spreading a petition asking the 330 Members of Parliament to return questionable payments of up to 20 million Ugandan shillings (about $9,000) they have received in the last two weeks from the ruling party to “monitor government programs.” Widely seen as a bribe, the money was released at a time when the Ugandan government has already spent 85% of its budget halfway through the fiscal year. About a quarter of the national budget was disbursed in January alone, the month before the elections.

Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ-Uganda) published a statement from the Pakistan Press Foundation condemning an attack by Special Force Guards on a television correspondent who filmed an altercation at a campaign venue:

Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), an independent non-governmental institution committed to promoting and defending freedom of expression, is concerned about the detention of Masaka based NTV Uganda correspondent Issa Aliga by the Special Forces Group (the bigger presidential protection unit SFG) for filming a scuffle involving Rwemiyaga area Member of Parliament Theodore Ssekikubo ahead of President Museveni’s campaign rally.

…While filming he was roughed up and man-handled by four Special Force Guards personnel who confiscated his camera. He was pushed here and there on accusation of filming an event without permission. He was taken to their bus and interrogated for some minutes. After interrogation, he was released and his pleas to get his camera back fail on deaf ears. He was then ordered to go through the usual security checks and attend a campaign rally like any other voters. His mobile phone was also switched off.

The Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted two incidents, in August and November of 2010, involving radio reporters being detained and harassed by the police:

On November 3, 2010, four armed men kidnapped Nzito, a 23-year old Radio Simba reporter who covered crime and occasionally opposition parties, and threw him into a pickup truck with tinted windows. “I spent 10 days locked in a dark room with my hands and legs handcuffed and remained on the floor. I was not given any real meals or food. The army men would come and scare me in the night,” he told CPJ. Assailants using the same truck eventually dumped Nzito outside the capital, Kampala, according to local journalists. His release came a day after HRNJ-Uganda filed a habeas corpus in court compelling the army commander, the attorney general, and the head of a security agency to produce the journalist. HRNJ-Uganda said its investigations determined that the journalist had been in the custody of Uganda's Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force.

Nzito told CPJ he frequently experiences nightmares now. “I have been dreaming about dark rooms, beatings and being held at gunpoint.”

Frank, a reporter with the U.S.-based online station Radio Free Buganda, suffered a similar misfortune in August 2010 after covering the 17th anniversary of the coronation of Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, the ruler of Uganda's most powerful traditional kingdom representing the Baganda, the country's largest ethnic group…

The government was not happy to hear that Radio Free Buganda was broadcasting the festivities. After the local newspapers Ggwanga and Buganda Post published stories about Frank's live broadcasts, he said he began to receive anonymous phone calls. Then, four men stormed Frank's home who took away his wireless Internet modem and computer. The next day, men Frank believed to be security agents detained him for six hours, seized his mobile phones, and pressed him to reveal whom he worked with and how much was paid. “I am scared for my life because all of my contacts were in my phones and other crucial information.”

It seems that the reductions in freedoms may also ripple out beyond the mainstream media outlets. According to AllVoices, Uganda's Assistant Inspector General of Police, Asan Kasingye, has announced that the police will be monitoring social media such as blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter during the elections:

[Asan Kasingye] said that it is possible that hate messages and inflammatory statements could be exchanged on Facebook and Twitter and so the police are monitoring them to guard against riots.

Kasingye claims that during the 2009 Buganda riots, some social media were used to stir up the population and cause widespread unrest.

Kasingye doesn’t explain the extent of the monitoring or how it will guard against infringement on personal rights of expression and privacy.

This is the first election in which social media has played an important role.

Political parties and candidates used Facebook to fundraise for campaigns and the Internet to raise their profiles locally and internationally.

This increasing harassment of journalists in Uganda has the potential to greatly impact coverage in this election season, and closer monitoring by the police may make it hard for the voices of citizens to be heard through social media. A free press is one of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy, and as that pillar erodes, it will weaken every other aspect of this nation.

This post is part of our special coverage Uganda: Walk to Work Protests.

9 comments

  • Hi,

    I think the headline of the article is misleading. As the editor of a local news magazine, neither I nor any of my colleagues – or any journalists I know – have been subject to pressure and or intimidation. Of course there are certain unwritten boundaries that we must remain within, but those are also unrelated to the covering the elections.

    Many of the incidents mentioned above are the result of ignorant individuals usually upcountry, not a sign of general decay in the respect of freedom of the press – incidents concerning security personnel are also usually the result of individuals within the security apparatus not necessarily working on orders from above. Uganda’s press is incredible free in comparison to that of neighbouring countries like Rwanda.

    The Ugandan government should be taken to task on many issues, corruption, outright theft and failure to deliver services top among these, but disrespect for press freedoms should not be one of them. The government has been bending over backwards to accomodate journalists during the campaigns.

    For an idea of the great critical reporting that is continuing in the run-up to the election, check out:

    dailymonitor.co.ug
    independent.co.ug
    dispatch.ug

    Cheers,

    Ole Tangen Jr.
    Editor, Kampala Dispatch

    • Hello Ole,

      Thank you for your thoughts on this. I agree that much of the decline in journalistic freedom has been unrelated to the elections. As you know, it is difficult to say what is “coming from above” and what is “the acts of a few individuals.”

      I would be curious what you see as the “unwritten boundaries,” although I realize that would then make them written. I do not see myself as a “journalist” – more as someone trying to spread the work of journalists and bloggers more widely. I have often tried to sort out exactly what tips a journalist over the edge, and would be interested in your views as a professional in the media field here.

      I am also curious about your views on Timothy Kalyegira’s article on your site at http://dispatch.ug/2010/11/19/free-not-to-speak-news-analysis-by-timothy-kalyegira/ where he states “With the 2011 general election campaign now underway, more of such reports of repression and harassment of journalists and opposition figures can be expected to come increasingly to the public’s attention.

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment!

      Mark

  • Hi Ole,
    It is true that the Ugandan government has done a lot to accomodate journalists. I think Mark makes this clear in his post where he says, “At times, it is amazing the things that journalists are allowed to write or broadcast in criticism of the government.”

  • Here is another important article from HRNJ-Uganda on this issue: http://hrnjuganda.blogspot.com/2011/02/thirty-four-ifex-members-urge-president.html

  • While I appreciate the post, I am only trying to say that these are isolated incidents and should not be conveyed as a trend. OK this could all change tomorrow but right now I am writing and no one is breathing down my back.

    Plus I find the letter from IFEX to be too alarmist and in many cases making out of date or unnecessary criticisms.

    Why don’t we all take a stand and celebrate the freedom we as journalists have experienced these last months!

    I hope I do not have to eat these words over the next few days.

    Cheers,

    Ole
    http://www.dispatch.ug

  • All these are cases of isolated incidents. There is no proof of a downward trend. Perhaps we should all be celebrating the rights we have been having but journalists are too skeptical to celebrate anything.

    Plus the letter from IFEX was overblown and in some cases downright outdated. I will be reporting truthfully all weekend at http://www.dispatch.ug. Let’s hope I do not have to eat my words before this process os over.

    Cheers,

    Ole

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