Uganda’s news media and the government have constantly butt heads when it comes to access and sharing of information.
Looking down the lane, Uganda’s post-independence from colonial rule has picked up similar practices from it’s colonial administration. Any criticism towards the government or any type of advocation towards independence has been met with harsh punishments.
The Idi Amin years (1971-1979) were notorious for being the most terrible for the media. Several journalists payed the ultimate price of death for simply trying to do their job, according to an article by the Daily Monitor.
After Amin came Milton Obote’s return to rule Uganda between the years 1980 and 1985. His administration operated with an agenda of censorship towards the media. The media was still heavily chained and suppressed, making it dangerous to make any public judgement of his administration.
This dark history for Uganda’s media has occurred since Uganda became free from colonial rule. While life for journalists were worse during Uganda’s harsh dictatorships, many of these elements have still stayed the same.
Out of 180 countries, Uganda ranks 112th for the safety of journalists, according to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Since Yoweri Museveni’s first presidential term began in 1986 (31 years ago), many journalists who have portrayed his administration in an ill light have been suspended, stripped of their equipment, or badly beaten by ruling party members or security agents.
His most recent 2016 reelection saw serious media freedom violations which include threats to close down media outlets, Internet cuts, and verbal and physical attacks on reporters, especially those who covered the opposing presidential candidate.
Freelance photojournalist Isaac Kasamani experienced a physical attack from the Ugandan government when he was pepper sprayed for covering the arrest of the defeated opposition presidential candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye.
Besigye publicly rejected the result of Yoweri Museveni’s 5th reelection last year in 2016. Once Besigye’s criticism gained international attention, police intervened. This is when Kasamani pulled out his camera, hoping to capture the injustice unfolding before his very own eyes. Police interrupted Kasamani by hitting him directly in the eyes with pepper spray. He was blinded for several hours.
The head of Reporters Without Border’s (RSF) Africa desk Clea Kahn-Sriber said. “After these disputed elections, journalists continue to suffer as a result of the political violence prevailing in Uganda.”
KEEP QUIET, OR ELSE
Although RSF claims that acts of intimidation and violence against journalists are an almost daily occurrence in Uganda, CPJ reports that only five journalists have been killed in Uganda since 1992. Only two of them have confirmed motives.
Jimmy Higyenyi was a student at the United Media Consultants and Trainers when he was killed. Higyenyi was covering a rally in the capital, Kampala when the police fired into the crowd. The Ugandan government outlaws all political activity in the country, according to Article 269 of the constitution.
Another journalist who was murdered was Dickson Ssentongo, a news presenter for Prime Radio. Ssentongo would occasionally discuss politics over the air and was also campaigning to become a Ggoma Sub-County council member on the ticket of the opposition Democratic Party.
In 2010, Ssentongo was on his way to work when he was beaten by iron bars from unknown assailants. He died from his injuries before he could receive treatment. Although many of these elements hint towards political conflict, the motive for his murder is still unconfirmed. CPJ is still investigating to determine whether the death was work-related.
GOVERNMENT KEEPS WATCHDOGS ON A LEASH
If the previously mentioned stories of the murdered journalists don’t give a hint as to who the perpetrators of these attacks are, maybe this article from RSF can confirm your suspicions.
RSF continually calls on Ugandan authorities to stop preventing journalists from covering opposition activities. The Ugandan government is notorious for conducting news blackouts on any opposing candidate.
In September 2016, police inspector general Kale Kayihura accused the media of being “biased” with the intention of discrediting the government. They also threatened to arrest a reporter from Uganda’s leading independent Daily Monitor newspaper if he didn’t stop filming a roadblock they put in place to prevent reporters from covering an opposition leader’s return from a trip.
This instance is not an uncommon one. A May 2017 article from the African Centre for Media Excellence titled “Police top list of perpetrators of attacks on journalists in Uganda for fourth year” explains the statistics found in the Uganda Press Freedom Index pertaining to violent crimes against journalists.
According to the report, 135 cases of violations against journalists were documented in 2016. 83 of those violations were against the media. It also reports that the elections were a key cause for violations against journalists in Uganda in 2016.
Here are some additional highlights from the report:
- Over a dozen journalists have pending criminal defamation charges.
- Criminal trespass charges are used to deter journalists from covering events.
- Of the 135 violations, 16 directly involved female journalists. Male journalists continue to be the targets as they are the majority in many newsrooms.
It’s clear that the Ugandan government actively strives to maintain their reputation. However, their method of public relations mainly involves use of censorship and threatening tactics.
AN EYE FOR PRESS FREEDOM
While the government seems to get away with nearly every type of censorship pertaining to the media, it’s important to know that there’s another side actively fighting against this agenda.
The African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) is a Kampala-based independent, non-profit professional organization that is committed to excellence in journalism and mass communication in Africa, according to their website. A lot of their news reporting deals with journalism and media in Africa, ultimately serving as a watchdog African governments.
A recent article titled “Ugandan Prime Minister calls for better communication between media and security agencies” explains the growing rift between the media and security agencies in Uganda.
According to the Uganda Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, “Sometimes the wars between the media and government are uncalled for. We need to better understand each other, better communicate and better inquire from each other.”
The article also reports on the first Uganda government-convened meeting that addressed the problem with the police being “the worst offenders against press freedom, freedom of expression and civil liberties in the country.”
As far as solutions towards the prevention of attacks on journalists go, Uganda’s media has a long fight ahead of them. But reporting on the brutality of police seems to be the first step in that direction. It allows people to be aware of the injustice occurring against journalists and media outlets. Most importantly, it allows a glimpse into an alarming reality.