Uganda becoming a dangerous place for journalists

Saturday September 15 2018

Press freedom

Security organs remain the main tormentors of journalists in Uganda while the state maintains a studious silence. The 2017 Press Freedom Index put the police at the forefront of tormenting journalists for nine consecutive years. PHOTO | NMG 

DICTA ASIIMWE
By DICTA ASIIMWE
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In the past two months, journalists in Uganda have been arrested, beaten and had their equipment destroyed.

Media and democracy experts are forecasting harder times ahead as senior government officials intensify their criticism of the media.

Covering the numerous mysterious killings and the continuous crackdown against political opponents, and their own corresponding negative portrayal at home and internationally by the government has made journalism dangerous in Uganda.

President Yoweri Museveni last week accused journalists of politicising their work instead of reporting truth and facts.

He accused the media of giving a “blackout” to news of his launching of factories, the fact that Uganda is producing excess electricity from the Karuma, Bujagali and Isimba dams, and the fact that the country has finally reached the takeoff economic stage. He accused the media of preferring fake news.

Robert Sempala, the national co-ordinator for Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda fears that the president’s utterances may embolden security and government officials to go harder at journalists.

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“The president forgets that as the commander-in-chief he wields a lot of power over security forces eager to please him,” he said.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of Uganda said in a statement on September 12 that at least 10 applications by journalists seeking accreditation to report from Uganda had been rejected.

Ofwono Opondo, the executive director of the Uganda Media Centre said the government just changed the process of accreditation, and now it involves background checks on foreign journalists to weed out spies.

But Mr Opondo later told an online publication that foreign journalists often reported pro-opposition stories and so there was no need to accredit people producing “false news.’’

Accreditation

“Besides, accreditation is the prerogative of the host government. Foreign journalists cannot force the Uganda government to give them or anybody else visa, accreditation or work permit,” he tweeted.

In addition to refusing to accredit foreign journalists, the government also deported an American and a Canadian, accusing them of being media strategists for Kyadondo East Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine.

Mr Opondo says Jacqueline Wolfson, an American who was operating a charity, was deported for working in Uganda on a tourist visa. Ms Wolfson had earlier been accused of funding Mr Kyagulanyi’s activities and contracting Canadian communication specialist Anne Whitehead.

Ms Whitehead, who is accused of being behind Mr Kyagulanyi’s political strategy and international media appearances, was on the other hand denied a work permit.

But Mr Sempala says treatment of local media has been more vicious.

“The treatment of journalists in recent months has a more violent twist to it. It is also well targeted,” he said.

Previously, Mr Sempala said it was easy to encounter a number cases of mistaken identity and random beatings but this is no longer the case. He explained that in the past, government security agents targeted journalists who were not well known or those who worked for obscure media houses.

Lately, he said, well known journalists were being targeted citing the case of a Nile Broadcasting Services journalist who having gone into hiding, was tricked through her editor to meet security operatives.

Over the past two months, Mr Sempala says that 29 journalists have been tortured, arrested, beaten and had their equipment confiscated. He says that there is a pattern to the attacks, and it happens whenever the president Museveni criticizes the media.

He said that generally the president had a tendency to malign the profession with utterances that would cause them to be treated as rumour mongers. But this year, his statements have been threatening.

During the budget speech for example, President Museveni wondered why the Aga Khan was looking on as his media house the Daily Monitor maligned Uganda, a country from which he makes money. On other occasions he has targeted NTV, also from the same stable.

According to Mr Sempala, the president’s comments makes it difficult to practice journalism in the country.

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