Following the arrests and torture of some journalists in Uganda recently, many media rights groups have come out to denounce the growing harassment of the media and a "climate of fear" created by security agencies.
The recent arrests and torture of several reporters and photographers in Arua and Kampala respectively highlight a disturbing trend towards repression of freedom of expression, African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) said in a statement.
NTV journalists Herbert Zziwa and Ronald Muwanga were pounced on and beaten by security officers as they reported live from Arua, following the killing by shooting of Mr Yasin Kawuma, the driver of Kyadondo East Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine.
They were later charged with the “dubious” offence of incitement to violence and malicious damage to property. It was also reported that NBS TV’s John Kibaliza was forcibly arrested and detained in an unknown place.
On Monday, James Akena, a photographer working for the foreign news agency Reuters was beaten by soldiers, arrested and detained for several hours as he covered the #FreeBobiWine political protests in Kampala. His equipment was confiscated. NTV journalists Ronald Galiwango and Juma Kirya as well as Observer photographer Alfred Ochwo were also beaten or roughed up.
“We have also learnt that some journalists have been forced to delete footage from their cameras and phones of soldiers responding to or beating protesters. Some media houses have also been forced not to show images of the political violence unraveling in different parts of the country,” ACME said in a statement.
“Clearly, the security forces that have responded to protesters in the last week want to carry out their wanton abuse of the rights of Ugandans in darkness,” said Dr Peter Mwesige, ACME’s Executive Director, adding: “They don’t want any witnesses to their high crimes. That’s why journalists have been targeted deliberately.”
However, ACME called upon journalists to stay the course and speak truth to power.
“Remain the eyes and ears of the public. Stay accurate and truthful, investigate claims made by the different political players, provide explanation and context, be fair and balanced, stay independent from all vested interests, and keep the news proportionate to what is going on around us.”
ACME also urged the government to respect the constitutional and international obligations that bind Uganda to “recognise, respect, uphold, promote and protect freedom of expression, including press freedom”.
Meanwhile, Kenya Editors’ Guild, a journalism fraternity has also released a statement expressing their concern about what is happening in Uganda.
“The Kenya Editors’ Guild, and indeed the larger journalism fraternity in Kenya, is gravely concerned about the developments affecting media freedom next door in Uganda. Over the last two weeks, the world has witnessed blatant and serious attacks and harassment of Ugandan journalists in the course of their work. We have seen journalists being threatened, attacked and brutalised in a sustained campaign by the security agencies in Uganda,” a Tuesday statement reads in part.
“It is evident that the security forces in Uganda have mounted a bloody and horrific clampdown on free media covering political campaigns in Arua and the aftermath of a hotly contested parliamentary by-election. The journalists were not contestants in the political competition, and have committed no crime by carrying out their work, which is aimed at informing Ugandans and the rest of the world of the democratic and political processes in the country,” the statement adds.
The group said the action of security agencies in Uganda is a blatant attempt to silence journalists and deny Ugandans and the world the right to know and understand political and democratic events in that country.
They pledged to stand with their colleagues in Uganda during this trying period.
“When journalists are silenced society suffers. When freedom of expression is curtailed all other freedoms are threatened and democracy is under threat. The world family of decent nations must not stand by as these sins are committed against journalists. The Uganda government must cease attacks and harassment of journalists, and the East Africa Community, the African Union, the United Nations and other friends of democracy have a duty to help underwrite freedom of expression for the people of Uganda,” the statement concludes.
Meanwhile, the UPDF on Tuesday released the statement apologising to the media as well as individual journalists who were attacked and tortured while in the line of duty.
“Attention has been brought to the leadership of the UPDF about the unprofessional conduct of the soldiers who molested some journalists while deployed on a Joint Operation in the capital city on Monday 20th August 2018,” a statement by the Defence spokesperson Brig. Richard Karemire reads in part.
“UPDF wishes to express its displeasure over such behaviour by those individuals, and as a result, the Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) has ordered their arrest and punishment,” the statement adds.
Another journalists’ body, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), on Wednesday released a statement condemning the attacks on journalists in Uganda and tasked the UPDF to name soldiers who involved themselves in assaulting these journalists who were doing their work.
“Members of the security forces were guilty of a serious failure to do their duty,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk, adding: “Instead of protecting journalists who were just doing their job, soldiers attacked them brutally. Exemplary punishments must be imposed on these soldiers. Those who embody the authority of the state cannot commit acts of such brutality without being prosecuted.”