President Museveni set the agenda for 2013 to clearly include an onslaught on radio stations that host critical politicians. In his New Year’s message delivered on the last day of 2012, Mr Museveni reiterated a threat he had made a week earlier at a thanksgiving ceremony he hosted at State House, to shut down such radio stations .
He said having succeeded in disciplining the army, “indiscipline is now confined to elements of the political class and the media (who) … endlessly tell lies, sabotage progress, etc.” And then came the ultimate promise: “Firm steps will be taken to end this indiscipline.”
The President said radio stations that “peddle these lies should be closed if they are not prepared to fulfill their mandate of entertaining, informing truthfully and educating truthfully.”
As if moving to implement the directive, the responsible ministers soon issued stern warnings, especially to radio stations.
Mr Frank Tumwebaze, the minister for the Presidency, wrote a newspaper article in which he criticised individuals whom he said “with the support of the media” had accused the government of killing Butaleja Woman MP Cerinah Nebanda.
Nebanda’s sudden death, on December 14, had sparked off rounds of accusations and counter-accusations that worsened relations between the Executive and Legislature. And caught in the middle was the media, particularly radio stations, which the government accused of fanning the disagreements.
Mr Tumwebaze declined to comment on the matter when contacted, saying he had already spoken to the Daily Monitor about the issue.
In an earlier article, run on January 8, Mr Tumwebaze said of radio stations and the media in general: “We are not seeing debate but insults. The media should not be part and parcel of political fights. We are trying to sanitise the media (by threatening to revoke the licences of non-compliant radio stations), not to curtail it.”
Information and National Guidance Minister Mary Karooro Okurut made a similar argument, defending the government as a “friend of the media”, but at the same time preaching responsibility on the part of the media.
“We cannot curtail media freedom. [Because] you cannot kill your own child,” Ms Karooro, who was unavailable to comment because she was attending a cabinet meeting, said in the earlier article. “But the media houses must act within the law, if they act outside it, their licences will be withdrawn.”
The government’s recent onslaught against the media, particularly radio stations, is seen by some as a continuation of post-September 2009 hysteria, when the so-called Buganda riots provoked by the blocking of Kabaka Ronald Mutebi’s visit to Kayunga led to the closure of some radio stations.
The government blamed the chaos, which broke out in various townships in Buganda and claimed at least 27 lives (most of them from gunshot wounds), on “irresponsible” reporting by radio stations. Buganda Kingdom’s CBS FM and two other stations were shut down.
Open-air ex-studio line radio broadcasts, popularly known as ebimeeza, were also banned, with the government saying they incited violence.
Church Ambrose Bukenya, one of the regular contributors in the ebimeeza fora, petitioned a court against the ban on the popular programmes in 2010, but the case, after passing a Constitutional Court challenge lodged by the Attorney General, still has to be fixed for hearing.
Across the country, there is today a seeming drive to keep opposing voices off the airwaves. Our Bureau Chief for Fort Portal, Mr Felix Basiima, reports that on January 23, the police rounded up eight regular panelists on radio talk-shows, detaining three beyond the constitutionally permitted 48 hours without charge. The radio stations in the eye of the storm in Fort Portal are Better FM and Hits FM.
On the evening of January 23, Mr Bakari Mugah, the police spokesperson for the western region, told us that two of the three had been released on police bond, while one was still in custody. He said they were likely to be charged with inciting violence, defamation and spreading harmful propaganda. There had earlier been fears that they could be charged with treason, too.
The trio allegedly committed the offences when they made comments about First Lady Janet Museveni connected with the misuse of funds in the Office of the Prime Minister.
In Mbarara, Monitor’s bureau chief Alfred Tumushabe reported that regular panelists on radio stations said they would issue a joint communiqué denouncing State harassment of radio stations.
Mr Tumushabe said journalists from different radio stations in the region had separately told him of the intense pressure they are under to censor themselves.
A more blatant incident happened at Endigyito Radio, also in Mbarara, where the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) reportedly ordered the suspension of Mr James Kasirivu, the host of current affairs programme, Ekitandaro, or risk losing its operating license.
Kitagwenda MP Nulu Byamukama, who is the proprietor of the radio station, confirmed to the Daily Monitor that he received the letter from UCC ordering the suspension, but said he had taken up the matter with the authority and hoped it would be resolved soon.
Mr Kasirivu, who was also stopped from hosting two other programmes, News Hour and World Express, told us that on January 9, he received a call from his employer, Mr Byamukama, who was in Kampala, informing him that there was a letter from the UCC ordering his suspension. However, Mr Kasirivu says, the letter spelt out no charge for which he was to be suspended.
The following day, Mr Kasirivu said, he was on air when plain-clothes officers, who he said introduced themselves as coming from the UCC, entered the studio and ordered him to stop broadcasting, an order he said he politely turned down, arguing that his listeners would be hurt.
The same day, Mr Kasirivu continues, the same men returned with a letter, purporting to have “orders from above” to revoke the licence of the station since it had refused to sack him. At that point, Mr Kasirivu was suspended from broadcasting.
He would find out later that the problem was having hosted four MPs who are critical of the government – Mr Theodore Ssekikubo (Lwemiyaga), Mr Muhamad Nsereko (Kampala Central), Mr Medard Bitekyerezo (Mbabrara Municipality) and Mr Vincent Kyamadidi (Rwampara).
The police searched his laptop for recordings of the programme on which he had hosted them. But police investigations into the matter resulted in no charge being preferred against Mr Kasirivu, reportedly recommending that he be reinstated in his job. He had not been reinstated by the time we went to press.
Contacted for comment, Mr Mutabaazi denied any knowledge of this case.
Mr James Eriku, the Monitor’s bureau chief in Gulu, reports that the situation, especially at radio stations is not very different in the north, with “senior mobilisers” in the offices of different resident district commissioners intimidating radio stations to throw critical panelists out.
Cancer invading Kampala?
But the onslaught on radio stations, it appears, is not stopping in the countryside. At CBS, Buganda Kingdom’s radio station housed at Mengo in Kampala, recent media reports say CBS management was forced to suspend two vocal MPs, Mukono Municipality’s Betty Nambooze and Mr Nsereko, from the political talk-show Kkiriza oba gaana, hosted by Medi Nsereko.
The station Managing Director, Mr Godfrey Kaaya Kavuma, however, said he had never received any letter from UCC to that effect.
Ms Nambooze, however, said she was called by a “junior person” at CBS who told her that she would no longer be invited for the programme. “And, indeed, I have never been invited again,” Ms Nambooze said.
She added, “maybe the top management was put under informal pressure without a formal letter being written.”
One fears that some of the radio station workers or panelists could suffer the fate of Robert Kalundi Sserumaga, the former host of Radio One’s public affairs programme, Spectrum. Mr Sserumaga has been off air since 2009, when Mr Mutabaazi, then the head of the Broadcasting Council, wrote a letter banning him from hosting the show.
Mr Sserumaga challenged the ban in court but the case has never been heard to date.
It remains to be seen whether the heightened onslaught on media outlets will stem the “indiscipline” which the president complains about.
In the meantime, human rights defenders and journalists groups have protested the restriction of the already relatively narrow space to freely enjoy the constitutional right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press (media).