Regional govts intensify media crackdown ahead of elections

Saturday January 31 2015

Kenyan journalists demonstrate for press freedom. East African journalists are under attack for boldly reporting on corruption, political scandals and criticising government institutions and ruling elites. PHOTO | FILE

East African politicians are increasingly finding a critical media threatening, as it reports on corruption and other sensitive political issues, rights activists have said.

As the countries head for elections, activists say media freedom is under attack for boldly reporting on corruption, political scandals and criticising government institutions and ruling elites. Independent newspapers, radio stations and TV networks are being closely monitored by the regimes.

Burundi and Tanzania are holding elections this year, Uganda has its presidential polls slated for 2016 while Kenya and Rwanda will hold theirs in 2017.

Tanzania is the only country in the region that is certain to have a leadership change as President Jakaya Kikwete serves his last days in office.

There are already signs that authorities have launched pre-emptive crackdowns on the media to silence criticism of government institutions and the ruling elite.

Last week’s move by Tanzania to ban The EastAfrican newspaper has been linked to the government’s campaign to muzzle the press ahead of the upcoming October polls.


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In Burundi, where the president’s widely speculated about bid for a third term could push the country to the brink of violence, journalists are being arrested for refusing to reveal their sources.

Rwanda has gained notoriety for harassing and intimidating journalists and critical voices from within and outside the country. Interference with the independent media regulator is also rife.

Ugandan journalists face increasing threats, intimidation and harassment from government officials and National Resistance Movement party members, global watchdog Human Rights Watch reports.

In Kenya, the “war on terror” has allowed the government to broadly interpret threats to national security, sometimes to the detriment of the right to inform and be informed.

“We are not surprised that this is happening,” said Erick Oduor, the first vice president of the Eastern African Journalists Association (EAJA). “Journalists in the region are operating in a hostile environment,” he added.

In Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania, outdated laws are being used to intimidate journalists, while in Kenya, a raft of new national security laws passed last year are already threatening to silence dissenting voices and stifle press freedom.

“Countries in East Africa have criminal libel laws,” said Henry Maina, East and Horn of Africa director for Article 19, a London-based human rights group.

Kenya and Uganda are the only countries to remove sedition from their laws. In 2010, a Constitutional Court in Kampala declared the law unconstitutional. However, journalists are still charged with criminal libel, defamation and incitement.

Uganda leads in the region in having the highest number of ongoing and pending court cases against journalists and the media.

The Kampala-based Foundation for Human Rights Initiative said more than 62 journalists were assaulted by the police in 2014.

While no journalist has been imprisoned in Uganda, activists say the pending court cases are a noose around the journalists’ necks.

Last October, Ronald Ssembuusi, a journalist in southern Uganda, was found guilty of criminal defamation after three years of court proceedings.

Mr Ssembuusi, who was a correspondent for the Central Broadcasting Service, a radio station owned by the Baganda Kingdom, was charged for mentioning in his report an allegation linking a district chairman to the theft of solar panels donated by the African Development Bank (AfDB).

In Burundi, a media law passed in mid-2013 forbids journalists from covering national security issues, and those who do, could face fines of up to $6,000. This is a steep sum in a country where the average journalist earns about $100 a month.

The law forbids publication of news on “national defence, currency or public credit secrets.” Also, journalists cannot report on information that could “threaten state credit and the national economy” making it hard for business journalists to write about the country’s economy and unemployment rate.

But the most controversial part of the law is a clause forcing journalists to reveal their sources. Leading radio journalist Bob Rugurika, who heads the Bujumbura-based Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), is the first victim of this law.

Mr Rugurika was arrested on January 20 over his coverage of the murder of three Italian nuns last year. RPA ran an interview with a person who allegedly confessed to being one of the perpetrators.

The police are charging Mr Rugurika for complicity in the murders and for “failing to show solidarity” unless he reveals the name of the source. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

Alexandre Niyungeko, the president of the Union of Burundian Journalists (UBJ), said this law will “close independent media.”

UBJ has filed a petition at the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) in Arusha seeking orders to compel Burundi to repeal the laws for violating the principles of the treaty establishing the Community.

In Kenya, political figures are becoming increasingly intolerant. Citizen journalism is under threat because of this intolerance. Bloggers and social media users have found themselves facing charges of defamation, hate speech or undermining the authority of a public officer. Most of them are not protected by the privileges customarily given to the press.

READ: Regional govts expand online controls to crack down on dissent

Analysts say the controversial anti-terrorism laws assented to by President Uhuru Kenyatta last year will endanger Kenya’s democratic credentials.

Some clauses that severely limited freedom of the press and other civil and political liberties were temporarily suspended by Kenya’s High Court in early January. But, more than 90 per cent of the law is still operational.