Kasirye: His trials as a journalist on political frontline

NUP’s Lewis Rubongoya (L)  and Joel Ssenyonyi at Ashraf Kasirye’s birthday last Sunday.  Photos/ Courtesy

What you need to know:

  • The struggle. Last week, Ashraf Kasirye talked about his childhood and beginnings in journalism. Today he talks to Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi about quitting Vision Group for Ghetto TV, his injuries on Kyagulanyi’s campaign trail and what he is up to as he recovers.

Whenever Ashraf Kasirye left home for work, his wife Zam Nabiiki would pray that he returns safe. For several days, God answered her prayers. Not on December 27, 2020.

That Sunday, she called her husband but  there was no answer.  And when he called back, she also missed it. She had no smartphone.

Then, 30 minutes later a neighbour told her that her husband had been shot dead.

“It can’t be!” Nabiiki, then mother of one, exclaimed. She panicked and all calls to Kasirye’s colleagues went unanswered.

“Then I called my brother-in-law, who was watching events live, and he was crying. I knew Ashraf  was dead.”

Soon, people started coming to condole with her.

“But I kept calling his friends and until one told me Ashraf wasn’t dead; there was some hope.”

Kasirye was relaying the scuffle between National Unity Platform (NUP) and the military in Masaka, live on Ghetto TV. Soon, he became the news when a police officer hit him with an object that tore his left temple and hurled him from atop presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi’s car. Whether it was a bullet or teargas canister as police say, it badly injured Kasirye, and left him bleeding profusely and motionless.

“There were bullets and teargas; then I saw Ashraf collapsing from atop Bobi’s vehicle,” Achileo Kivumbi, head of Kyagulanyi’s security team, retells the tragic moment.

“We thought Ashraf had died. And in sheer fury, the boys threw his body on a police vehicle, saying “omulambo gwammwe guugwo, mugulye [eat his body].”

“RIP Ashraf,” went viral on social media.

But then Kivumbi saw Kasirye’s body moving. “I shouted ‘Ashraf mulamu [he is alive]!”

Kasirye hopes that after a second surgery, perhaps this year, he will be able to resume journalism.  Photo / ABDUL-NASSER SSEMUGABI

However, the attempt to take Kasirye off the police truck triggered another battle.

“Police thought we wanted to burn their vehicles; they beat us terribly.”

Eventually, Kasirye was rushed to Masaka Hospital aboard an NTV car.

Two other journalists were hospitalised with injuries.

Kasirye was later transferred to Lubaga Hospital, where his wife and Bobi Wine’s wife Barbara Itungo waited.

Unfortunately, as a worried Kyagulanyi stared at the unconscious Kasirye fighting for his life in an ambulance, his bodyguard Frank Ssenteza, was killed in a confrontation with the military at Busega roundabout.

Kasirye only watched the footage last month, a year after that tragic Sunday.

The Bobi bond

In May 2017, court annulled Apollo Kantinti’s victory as Kyadondo East Member of Parliament, citing electoral irregularities and ordered fresh elections.

Robert Kyagulanyi, an artiste popular by his stage name Bobi Wine, a political novice entered the race. Kasirye had covered most of his music events but the first time he talked to him one-on-one was when the Electoral Commission briefed all candidates aspiring for the by-election.

“Days later, Bobi asked for my phone number,” Kasirye says, then pauses for seconds, and adds, “let me leave him in peace.”

Anyway, the two became friends and talked often.

“I would meet him for interviews, from nominations, and throughout the campaigns.”

Kasirye, then a freelancer at Vision Group, also covered the other candidates and filed most stories from the field. His stories were used on all Vision platforms, including TV West and the regional papers such as Rupiny.

“Within one month Vision paid me over Shs3m, my best pay from story count. I was also voted star performer of the month which came with a Shs300,000 token.”

That felt great and he gave his new friend Kyagulanyi, who had won the election, Shs20,000.

“I thought he would reject it because he is rich but he took it with a warm smile. He gave me a big hug and thanked me for the good job. It was awesome.”

That bond would get stronger.

Order from above?

After the 2017 by-election, Kasirye says his then editors no longer used his stories as often, yet as a freelancer, he was only paid per story used.

One day, in late 2019, while covering an event at the Indian consulate, Kasirye’s phone suddenly went missing. Confused, he only wrote the print story, off-head, because with the sound bites lost with the phone he couldn’t file for radio.

 “Lost in sorrow and confusion, I took a nap on the desk until 6pm.”

In August, a news report  stated that musician Ziggy Wine, Kyagulanyi’s friend had been kidnapped, had his eye and fingers removed before he died in Mulago Hospital.

The daily would apologise for the “inaccurate information,” clarifying that Ziggy Wine had died of injuries sustained in a motor accident, according to Police.

Surviving Luuka

In late 2017 Richard Kalema, then of Red Pepper, shared the idea of starting Uganda’s first online television with fellow journalists to be the voice of the ghetto people. They named it Ghetto TV, with Bobi Wine, the Ghetto President as patron.

They opened social media platforms for the TV.

Kasirye presented Issues at Hand, a political show hosting opposition politicians and those who had defected from the NRM.

Kalema says Kasirye was also excellent at writing scripts and voicing feature stories.

Kalema says they rejected many potential sponsors who wanted to use the channel to promote pro-government propaganda.

But well-wishers, especially in the diaspora, funded the channel that gave Kyagulanyi unlimited coverage he could not get in mainstream media, as his musical lyrics and speeches became more venomous to the regime.

Blogger Ashburg Kato handled the lifestyle beat and being a non-journalist, he had no conflict issues on a politically-biased TV, becoming the face of the channel before crossing to NRM in 2020.

Then Kasirye became the star for reporting the violent electoral campaigns live. He would pay a price.

The Masaka tragedy almost took his life but was not the worst “because I only felt the pain much later when I regained consciousness.”

Kasirye remembers the military actions in Luuka District that triggered the November riots which left at least 50 people dead.

“The campaigns were already bloody; teargas became the norm and somehow, I thank God that I was finally hospitalised and got comprehensive treatment for all the chemicals I had ingested.”

Wednesday morning, November 18, 2021. NUP reached Luuka grounds for a rally.

“The anti-riot police presence was more than what we expected. It seems the mission was to beat and arrest all of us.”

The officers wanted to arrest NUP leader Kyagulanyi for flouting campaign guidelines aimed at controlling the spread of Covid-19.

“In the scuffle, people lost limbs. One man’s eyes were popped out by a teargas canister,” says Kasirye, who as usual, was atop Kyagulanyi’s car, relaying videos, still pictures and commentary live on Ghetto TV.

In a well-labelled press jacket and helmet, Kasirye looked a journalist. But that did not spare him the Police’s wrath.

“Suddenly, one of the officers dragged me down and I fell.”

More was coming.

“One sprayed pepper into my eyes. Another, hit my jaws with a baton until I opened my mouth. Another pumped pepper into my throat. Another hit my stomach until I swallowed the pepper.”

Kasirye and others were rushed to Luuka Hospital.

Kasirye (2nd Right) with fellow journalists who covered Bobi Wine’s campaigns before the 2021 elections. 

“I called a friend and told him to send my regards to my wife and child. ‘I’m going to die.”

The government hospital at Luuka, overwhelmed by patients, could not help him. He was rushed to Alshafa Hospital in Jinja.

Meanwhile, Kivumbi and fellow guard Eddie Mutwe, in trying to protect Kasirye, also got their pepper dose and ended up at Lubaga Hospital, Kampala.

“I started feeling better later in the night though my eyes still hurt. A doctor said had I been jailed before treatment I would have died,” Kasirye recalls.

Kyagulanyi spent that night in Nalufenya prison, which triggered spontaneous riots in Kampala, the Central region and elsewhere.

Kasirye watched the riots on TV but the images were horrifying for him.

“Blood scares me,” he says, sounding ironic. “When I see photos of me when I was hit in Masaka, I wonder how bold those who took them were.”

The riots ended after two days. Kyagulanyi was released. And after friends cleared his bills Kasirye was discharged. He went home briefly and jumped back onto the campaign trail.

“But the military brutality against us didn’t stop. In Jinja, I was on my knees filming Kyagulanyi and the police fired at us. Two live bullets fell between my legs. I showed them to Bobi and we all thanked God we had survived them.”

Aftermath

Many of Kyagulanyi’s allies did not vote for him. Some had died in the struggle, disappeared, others in jail.

Kasirye —who doctors predicted would recover after six months—defied odds, leaving hospital and cast his vote in Nansana, Wakiso on January 14, 2021.

When Kasirye left ICU, his wife recalls, he could not talk but wrote uncoordinated words on a piece of paper asking about voting.

“The doctors advised us to grant his wish and take him to vote,” she says.

Nabiiki would help Kasirye vote for candidates of his choice.


Today

Kasirye has spent a year jobless—too much for someone who began work at the age of 15. But he thanks God that now he can write and edit some scripts. He has resumed his Bachelor of Developmental Studies at Makerere University, and is writing his autobiography.

He still battles headaches and cannot bite anything hard. He says he will undergo a second operation, likely this year, to fix the skull, after which he might resume ‘serious’ journalism.

Kasirye reserves special thanks for his wife Zam, Kyagulanyi, Barbie, NUP secretary general Lewis Rubongoya, journalists Culton Scovia Nakamya, Abubaker Lubowa and his team, Human Rights Network for Journalists, among others for “walking this tough journey with me. May God bless them,”

Kasirye knows that no story is worth one’s life, but he also knows it is such stories that define exceptional journalists.

Role models

Citing Kyagulanyi’s Byekwaso lyrics,  Kasirye says: “You can’t go to heaven if you don’t want to die.”

Kasirye adores Stephen Sackur, an English journalist who presents HARDtalk, a current affairs interview programme on BBC World News and the BBC News Channel. He was also the main Friday presenter of GMT on BBC World News.

He is inspired by Andrew Neil, a Scottish journalist and broadcaster who is chairman of The Spectator, former editor of The Sunday Times from 1983 to 1994 and former presenter BBC political programmes. He is also  inspired by Christiane Amanpour, a British-Iranian journalist and television host.  Amanpour is the Chief International Anchor for CNN and host of CNN International’s nightly interview programme,  Amanpour. Kasirye admires the journalists for their exceptional journalism and vows to continue reporting that challenges bad governance, because giving up would be betrayal to those who died in the struggle and their families.

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