When President Museveni loosened the state’s hold on the media some years ago, journalists believed that a new era of press freedom had dawned in the country. But recent events indicate that this right may be eroding fast. Epajjar Ojulu reports from Kampala.
The long-held image that the government of President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power in 1986, has turned the country into a haven for free press after the torments journalists endured during the postindependence eras of Milton Obote and Gen. Idi Amin is rapidly losing credibility.Although Uganda has about 200 FM radio stations, over three dozen television stations and numerous publications, the owners are aware that like his predecessors, President Museveni does not easily tolerate criticism.
In addition to allegedly torturing, detaining and charging individual journalists for sedition, the Museveni government has attacked media houses he accuses of subversion and publishing harmful news. The Daily Monitor, owned by the Nairobi-based Nation Media Group, part of the Aga Khan’s business network, has earned much of Museveni’s wrath for its independence and objective reporting. On 22 May 2013, police raided and shut down the newspaper offices in Kampala to prevent it from publishing allegations by General David Sejusa (Tinyefuza) that there were plans to assassinate senior army officers opposed to plans to have Museveni’s son, Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba succeed him.
Although The Monitor was halted, that did not stop the news from spreading. The Police also ordered the Uganda Communications Commission to switch off KFM and Dembe FM radio stations, owned by the same group. Last year, the government also shut down The Red Pepper, a political-cumpornographic daily, for publishing a story which was already stale news but which the government claimed could damage its relations with Rwanda. The paper was allowed to reopen after its editors were invited to State House where they were ‘pardoned and advised by the President on good journalism practices’.
As with his predecessors, Museveni’s bad relations with the media seem to arise during political crises. The question of his succession led to acrimony during debates in Parliament to remove Presidential term and age limits, which paved the way for him to seek another term. The controversial amendment of the Constitution triggered ongoing protests where journalists covering them have been attacked.
However, former Information Minister and current Information Communication Technology Minister Frank Tumwebaze insists that there is freedom of the media in the country. ‘’There is nothing like absolute freedom. Any freedom exists in a context,’’ he argues, adding that the few cases where journalists have been harmed should not drown the overall picture of press freedom in the country. He accuses some journalists of publishing stories which harm national interests.
History of bad blood
The history of bad blood between governments and the media in Uganda is long and painful. Prime Minister Obote, the first postindependence leader, created a political crisis when he discarded the constitution which recognised traditional kingdoms, opting for socialist policies and abolishing the kingdoms. During this crisis Obote kept the media under his firm grip and only government propaganda was published. The pro-Buganda Kingdom newsletter, Ssekanyolya was banned. At the height of the crisis in 1966 he also deported Ted Jones, the Uganda correspondent for the Nairobi-based Kenya Weekly News.
Obote did not want the media to publish the truth about the magnitude of the atrocities committed by his army during their attack on the Bugandan king’s palace, and the repression of his political opponents. During his second administration in 1980 after the fall of Amin, Obote’s intolerance of the media did not change. This writer, who was then editor-in-chief of the government-owned Uganda Times Newspaper, was summarily sacked in 1984 after publishing an editorial criticising the apparent failure by security forces to end the numerous killings taking place in the country.
The Obote government also closed down several opposition publications critical of his administration. Gen. Idi Amin, who ruled Uganda with an iron hand from 1971 to 1979, committed the worst atrocities in history against journalists. When Chief Justice Benedicto Kiwanuka was kidnapped in September 1972 from his chambers in Kampala and murdered for criticising Amin’s disregard for the law, the private media was not allowed to say anything Similarly when Amin murdered the Anglican Church of Uganda Archbishop Janani Luwum, he ordered all the media in the country to publish a fake story that the archbishop had died in a car crash.
The worst atrocity against journalists was the execution by Amin of four foreign journalists in 1979, accused of entering the country as spies. They were Swedish Arne Lemberg, working with Expressen, Carl Bergman of Svenska Dagbladet, and Germans Wolfgang Stein, the Kenya-based reporter for Stein Magazine and Hans Bollinger, a photographer. Amin was also responsible for killing half a dozen local journalists, including the editor of the Catholic Church-owned Munno newspaper, Father Clement Kiggundu, whose charred body was found in his Volkswagen car in the-then notorious Namanve Forest in the eastern outskirts of Kampala city.
In addition, Amin is said to have been behind the murder of the Ministry of Information’s famous TV photographer Jimmy Parma and the Uganda Television anchor James Bwogi. Other prominent journalists fled the country to escape the atrocities.
Impunity no longer acceptable
With that sordid history behind them, journalists in Uganda believe the world has changed and the torture or murder of journalists with impunity, as carried out by Amin, is no longer acceptable. This, perhaps, explains the bravery often exhibited by journalists when confronting security forces during reports on demonstrations.
The current proliferation of private media houses, especially in the spheres of television, radio, the internet and social media, has made it impossible for state organs such as the police and the army to commit atrocities under cover. Indeed, the majority of the journalists who have suffered the wrath of the police and army work for the television media.
In one of those macabre pieces of footage, Reuters photographer James Akena was, in August, seen kneeling down with his hands up in the air as three soldiers rained canes on him. Akena was covering anti-government street protests in Kampala over the arrest and detention of Robert Kyagulanyi, the pop star-turned politician, popularly known by his stage name of Bobi Wine. Nation Television journalists Herbert Zziwa and Ronald Muwanga’s live broadcast instantly went off air after they were grabbed by security forces while covering the Arua Municipality by-elections in August, where Bobi Wine and 32 other politicians, including three members of parliament, were arrested and detained.
Zziwa and Muwanga were detained but later freed without charges. Akena and others were lucky not to sustain life-threatening injuries. WBS TV journalist Andrew Lwanga was not so lucky. Covering a youth protest in Kampala in 2015, he was so brutally assaulted by the Old Kampala district police station chief Joram Mwesigye, that he sustained a broken spine. The police officer was captured on video hitting the journalist with an iron rod.
Since then, Lwanga has not been able to walk without the help of crutches. The 31-year-old journalist’s career is apparently in ruins. His only hope for recovery rests in planned surgery in India, if and when he finds someone to foot the bill estimated at $10,000. The torture, detention and the violation of other rights of journalists in the course of their duties by security forces, has created fear among them. No-one has been prosecuted for violating the rights of journalists and it is a signal that the government is either complicit in the perpetuation of crimes against journalists or simply neglecting its responsibility to protect them. Whatever the case may be, the hope for a free media in Uganda continues to be a distant dream.