On December 27, Mr Saif-llah Ashraf Kasirye, a Radio One journalist and an online Ghetto TV cameraman was rushed to Masaka Hospital in critical condition after he was allegedly shot in the chaos that ensued as police tried to disperse supporters of presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, in Masaka District. According to another journalist, NTV’s Ali Mivule, Kasirye was hit by a projectile on the head and started bleeding profusely. Mivule says he too was shot in the thigh at close range.
This is not the first time Kasirye was attacked while doing his job. Just over a month ago, on November 18, Kasirye was assaulted by security operatives, as he was taking photos on the campaign trail of Bobi Wine, in Luuka District. During the assault, Kasirye's camera, phone, and recorder were damaged, and his eyes pepper-sprayed, leading to his collapse and eventual admission at Jinja hospital.
"I tried to tighten my jaws but they forcefully opened it and pepper-sprayed me. I now feel a lot of stomach pain and my camera, phone, laptop, and recorder were taken by the officers," Mr Kasirye recounted his ordeal to officials of the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ).
Campaigns, a troublesome place
Ever since presidential campaigns were flagged off in November, the activities have been marred by the arrests of mainly opposition presidential candidates. They are accused of holding mass campaign rallies and yet the Electoral Commission (EC) has called for the candidates to have a small number of people addressed, and for them to conduct their campaigns on television and radio plus other media platforms in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Many journalists, mostly those who cover opposition campaigns, have found themselves victims of the attacks meted out when security forces try to block or stop the candidates and their supporters.
Damalie Mukhaye and Abubaker Lubowa, both journalists attached to Nation Media Group-Uganda who are trailing various presidential candidates have their own narrative.
"I have been covering candidate Kyagulanyi and lately, I have realised that whenever I go close to security to take photos, the men in uniform start cocking their guns threatening to shoot us," Lubowa says, adding: "We have for long been beaten, intimidated, threatened and equipment including computers, cameras, radio recorders vandalised, but no step has been taken by lawmakers, that's why we have become reluctant to report to police because there is no justice in most cases."
Mukhaye reveals that police have fired live and rubber bullets at them putting their lives at risk. She also says they are always pepper-sprayed, making them worry about their health.
Likewise, Moses Mukama a journalist attached to Baba FM in Jinja District says he was assaulted by supporters of a candidate contesting to be a member of parliament. Mr Mukama says he continues to seek medication as he has not completely recovered from the assault.
There is an outcry of journalists to the government to allow them to exercise their freedoms to act professionally and also an appeal to other bodies including civil society organisations to push for an end to brutality towards journalists. The cases keep rising as the current election campaigns get into their last lap.
Attacked, beaten, and harassed
Cliff Wamala a journalist of NTV-Uganda was left nursing injuries inflicted on him by police during a standoff with presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi that lasted several hours in Alebtong District on December 11.
"We were working and showed them our identification cards and documents but then they continued beating us as we tried to record events during the standoff. We need police to understand that we are doing our work just as they are doing theirs," Mr. Wamala said.
Another journalist, Stephen Otage a reporter with Monitor Publications Ltd, says he was beaten by a soldier on December 15 at the Electoral Commission offices over photos. Despite identifying himself, the soldiers instructed the journalist to surrender his camera, phone, and later arrested him.
"I was slapped by a soldier and driven to UPDF fuel station in Mbuya, blindfolded using my own facemask amid interrogation of how long I have been a journalist, my age and place of residence," Otage said.
Moses Balikowa a journalist at City FM Jinja was beaten and pepper sprayed as he was trying to record Robert Kyagulanyi in Luuka District on November 18 as police was arresting him.
"Security officers beat me up as I trying to record and my recorder and phone were damaged. I was seriously injured and up to now my right leg is not yet okay," Balikowa said.
A longtime problem
The coordinator of the HRNJ, Uganda, Robert Ssempala, says they have so far registered 33 cases of journalists being brutally attacked during this election period. Ssempala says the government has interfered a lot in media freedoms during this pandemic and election campaign period. Some journalists have lost jobs, others have been ordered not to give space to some opposition candidates and other media houses have been threatened with being shut down should they fail to follow orders.
Recently in northern Uganda, one of the presidential candidates Patrick Amuriat Oboi of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) paid for space on radios in Gulu and Lira, in the month of November to talk to the voters but was later switched off without delivering his messages. Amuriat says he was also blocked from Etop, Kyoga and Delta Radios in Soroti District after he had booked for talk shows, with the radios declining to host him, citing intimidation from the government.
Bobi Wine has not been given a chance to access any radio stations and has been constantly blocked whenever he tries to appear at anyone. In many of these situations, journalists find themselves unable to host candidates to interview them. Some find themselves harassed by security or being detained and interrogated for hours over why they were allowing opposition candidates to go on air.
The police spokesperson Kampala metropolitan area, Mr. Patrick Onyango however, denies harassing journalists noting that their relationship is usually smooth but gets rocky especially when it comes to riotous situations where their principles and ethics of journalism is lost and they become political activists.
"Journalists prevent us from arresting suspects during such situations, some block us from doing our lawful duties thereby rendering them vulnerable to arrest and any other acts," Onyango says.
Ssempala says press freedom in the country has not improved since last year's World Press Freedom Day.
He says last year (2019), HRNJ documented over 260 cases of abuse and violations on press freedom in Uganda which if left unchecked will hinder good journalism. Previous years show that the situation has generally been in decline. HRNJ documented 135 cases of violations against journalists in 2016, a slight decline from 143 cases reported in 2015. Of the 135 violations recorded, 16 directly involved female journalists. Male journalists continue to be the targets as they are the majority in many newsrooms.
The HRNJ press index report also indicated that 46 media houses were affected by press freedom violations in 2016. Of these, Daily Monitor was most affected, with 14 journalists suffering violations. The part-government owned New Vision did not escape attack, with 12 cases of abuse of its journalists reported. In third place was NBS Television where nine cases of violations against journalists were recorded.
A global trend
According to the “Safety of journalists and the danger of impunity”, a report by the Director General of UNESCO 2020, only 13 per cent of the cases globally involving crimes against journalists were reported as resolved in comparison to 12 per cent in 2019 and 11 per cent in 2018. The agency tasked with defending press freedom has reported that even though 2020 saw a slight decrease in the rate of impunity for crimes against journalists, 87 per cent of such cases worldwide were still not resolved.
While casualties related to countries experiencing armed conflict have declined, fatal attacks against journalists covering stories related to corruption, human rights violations, environment crimes, trafficking, and political wrongdoing have risen in other countries, the report indicates.
In her remarks last year, on May 3rd, during the World Press Freedom Day National Dialogue, the former US Ambassador, Deborah R. Malac said: “In Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Uganda dropped eight places to a ranking of 125 out of 180 countries in the world, compared to 117 the previous year. As the report noted, acts of intimidation and violence by security forces against reporters are an almost daily occurrence in Uganda. The situation is even worse outside of Kampala, where security officials routinely prevent journalists from covering events and often arrest and rough them up.”
A year later and the situation has not changed at all.
This publication has been written as part of the CHARM 2020 Media Fellowship. It is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).