Two and a half years ago my colleague Henry Ochieng and I were arrested and charged with forgery. The charges arose out of errors that appeared in a reproduction of a letter written by President Museveni proposing to ring-fence elective positions in Bunyoro region to indigenous people who’d become a minority due to large-scale immigration to the area.
The arrest was not entirely unexpected – it is an occupational hazard for any Monitor editor – but the forgery charge was. It is one thing to be charged with the more conventional media offences but this was something new.
On the one hand it was encouraging to note that after years of chipping away at restrictive media laws by our lawyers James Nangwala and Alex Rezida, the State was running out of media offences to charge us with.
On the other hand it was a worrying sign that the State would, from now on, thumb through the law books to throw everything and anything at us. The kitchen sink was hanging loose but more to that in a little bit.
On Tuesday, after 21 visits to the court, the magistrate threw out the charges that had sought to criminalise what was an honest mistake and a part of the trade. Over the customary dinner we have at the end of every case I couldn’t help but reflect on the power of the State and how easily it can be abused, from having baseless charges thrown at you to, as happened in our case, police officers trying to hide bail documents from a file so that we could spend a weekend in Luzira.
The signs were there from the start when our interrogation was taken over by an intelligence agent whose naïve line of questioning left his police colleagues (who were by far more professional and with it) cringing in embarrassment.
Yet ours is no isolated case. The signs of abuse of power are all around us, from suspects being denied bail over frivolous grounds (including holding them until the banks are closed for the day) to innocent persons being framed for rape, treason, etc.
Criminals must be hunted down and punished but we must not allow State power to be abused to stifle critical views or the freedoms of opponents, real or perceived. While ours was, in the grand scheme of things, only an inconvenience and a stain on our honour, things can get worse and appear to be headed that way.
A couple of weeks ago Isaac Kasamani, one of our photojournalists, was allegedly shot at by an occupant of a police van. Isaac has covered several riots and knows his way around the frontline but he was adamant that someone had opened the door, let off a round which missed him as he crouched to take a photo, and speeded off.
A few days later, junior Internal Affairs minister James Baba and police boss Lt. Gen. Kale Kayihura, told a press conference that the photojournalist had refused to come forward and record a statement. Isaac, who was in the press conference, stood up and challenged this version of events, saying no one had come forward to interview him.
Nevertheless, the official press release issued from the press conference by the Uganda Media Centre made no mention of this significant fact – nor that someone then tried to quietly serve Isaac with a witness summons after the press conference.
Isaac has since recorded a witness statement with the police who have promised to bring in an international investigator to probe the matter. One hopes that it is not too late to carry out ballistics tests on the guns carried in that police van that day or to interrogate the mystery plain clothed men who man it.
There are thousands of police officers, magistrates, judges who do an honest job and exercise their power with responsibility and a commitment to justice. We must all stand up and ensure they are not swallowed by the creeping impunity around us – the impunity which lets those who kill get away with murder.
At breakfast yesterday my son started dancing to a song that had come onto the telly. I found myself jigging away with him (and missing a meeting while at it). He was only a day old when we went to court and this was a precious moment but as we danced, I kept thinking about Isaac Kasamani’s daughter and what could have been on that fateful riotous day.
We must never forget that there is a thin line between dancing on the ceiling and dancing on graves.