One year later, tortured journalists await justice

Daily Monitor journalist Irene Abalo (centre) is helped by NMG-Uganda managing editor Tabu Butagira (right) and another colleague at a health facility in Kampala after she was beaten by security forces on February 17, 2021. Photo / Michael Kakumirizi. 

What you need to know:

  • On the same day, Mr Ali Mivule, a journalist with NTV Uganda, was left with a bruised thigh after a tear gas canister was fired in his direction. NBS journalist Daniel Lutaaya was also left nursing a sprained back after he was caught up in a scuffle.

At the peak of the heated presidential campaign last year, journalists found themselves caught in the crosshairs as security forces policed the so-called scientific electioneering in a heavy-handed manner.

The violence meted out on the journalists was probably unprecedented. The trail of destruction spoke for itself.

On December 27, 2021, Mr Ashraf Kasirye—a former New Vision journalist, who now works with Ghetto TV—was left glued to a hospital bed for eight months with a cracked skull after Mr Enoch Baine—the former Regional Police Commander of Masaka Sub-region—shot at him.

On the same day, Mr Ali Mivule, a journalist with NTV Uganda, was left with a bruised thigh after a tear gas canister was fired in his direction. NBS journalist Daniel Lutaaya was also left nursing a sprained back after he was caught up in a scuffle.

Three days later, Ms Culton Scovia Nakamya of BBS Terefayina and other journalists were separately arrested, interrogated, and detained on account of live streaming and profiling officers who were part of the troops on the ground.

The wounds—both literal and metaphorical—of the various attacks are still fresh more than 12 months later. The journalists, who faced psychological torture then, are still grappling with life-threatening injuries and loss of tools of trade.

African Institute for Investigative Journalism (AIIJ), an organisation that fronts media excellence and supports press persons, documented the episodes of torture—physical and otherwise—during the campaign. The goal was to ultimately help the authorities identify the culprits for various acts of torture.

A review of the status of the journalists, who were tortured during the electioneering period, brought the AIIJ to the conclusion that justice remains elusive.

“I cannot stand under sunshine for long and I will never cut off my hair. I lost my memory and some words in some languages because I was informed by the doctors that there was a piece of my brain that was sliced off because it sustained a blood clot,” Mr Kasirye says.

Fresh wounds

The Ghetto TV journalist faced a similar ordeal during the arrest of former National Unity Platform (NUP) presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, in Luuka District when the campaigns were still at a nascent stage.

The operation was commanded by Mr Frank Mwesigwa.

In November 2020, a rubber bullet fired from a police gun disfigured Mr Moses Bwayo’s face as he followed Mr Kyagulanyi on the campaign trail. Mr Bwayo has since petitioned the court. His case is, however, yet to be heard.

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda’s (HRNJ) 2021 Press Freedom Index report named the police, the army, and resident district commissioners as those at the top of the list of institutions violating the rights of journalists in the country.

The report indicated that police account for nearly 60 percent of all violations documented in 2021. No wonder, the scars in the minds of Ms Irene Abalo are still fresh. The NMG Uganda journalist—and mother of three—was among the journalists who were roughed up by security forces as they attempted to cover Bobi Wine petitioning the United Nations High Commission over torture of his supporters. Journalists faced off with the army and many were injured in the brawl.

“I can never forget that day. I have never seen anyone reaching out to me for redress or any kind of justice. I have been seated at home all this while and I don’t know what will happen to my journalism dream,” Ms Abalo, who claims her source of livelihood is under threat, says.

In this case where many journalists faced brutality from the security personnel, the name of Lt Col Franklin Namanya, aka Napoleon, was quickly spotlighted.

Brig Gen Felix Kulayije, the spokesperson of Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), last week told journalists that officers—like Lt Col Namanya—who are implicated in torturing journalists, have since been punished and other court cases are still ongoing.

“We have been handling these matters and some of our officers who were implicated in these shameful actions have since been punished,” he said.

Hot air, no liftoff

A fast search, however, shows that Mr Baine—the former Masaka Regional police commander, who was named in the scuffle in Masaka District—has since been transferred to West Nile in the same capacity.

Napoleon has even been promoted to the rank of full Colonel, while Mr Mwesigwa is still a commander in the counter-terrorism department of the police.

It is not clear whether it is true the officers ever got any caution or reprimand in any way for attacking innocent journalists, who were deployed by their media houses to do their job.

But Brig Kulayije says: “I have been training my officers at the opportunity. I get to make sure the things that made us join the army do not repeat themselves. Journalists also need to be careful because our officers are human beings.”

The Information Technology and National Guidance minister, Dr Chris Baryomunsi, also believes training of journalists and security personnel will come in handy.

“There is a clear need for the government and security to come out to pay the damages caused,”Mr Abubaker Lubowa, an NMG Uganda journalist, says.

A fortnight ago, this publication reported that the United Nations (UN) had tightened its scrutiny of rights violations in Uganda and, in a raft of recommendations, demanded that the government prosecute perpetrators of torture.

The leaked report also indicated that the Government of Uganda had informed the UN that Ms Nakamya and Mr Kasirye—both brutalised during the 2021 election campaigns—had been compensated for the damages.

Separate statements were later issued by the journalists. They expressly stated that the two journalists were extended some form of compensation.

Uganda’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Adonia Ayebare, later denied telling the UN that the Uganda government came through for torture victims financially.

Mr Robert Ssempala, the executive director of HRNJ, said most of the cases of torture have been secretly handled by security forces.

“I have been handling most of these matters…but most of these cases have stalled, especially after the journalists refused the little pay that security forces was approaching them with so as to shut up. We continue to demand fairness,” Mr Ssempala said. 

Dr Baryomunsi said he was not sure whether journalists were promised any form of compensation. He also added that the slow wheels of the court have delayed perpetrators of violence against the media from being “served with what they deserve.”