Uganda: The State of Media Freedom in 2018

MLDI has been working with HRNJ since 2008 to provide legal defence to journalists, bloggers and independent media in Uganda.

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) was established in 2005 by a group of journalists. It is a non-profit, non-partisan independent media group with a membership of over 700 journalists. HRNJ-Uganda’s mission is to effectively represent journalists whose freedoms are curtailed – both in courts of law and by advocating for creation of protective laws for journalists.

The state of the media in Uganda this year can be described in two parts: The first half of the year was relatively calm with few violations on media freedom or attacks on journalists. However, the period from May to date has been riddled with sustained violations of media freedom and attacks against journalists by security forces. The media space has been gradually shrinking due to numerous attempts by state actors to limit media coverage of the prevailing political, social and economic circumstances in the country.

Among the cases we received in the first half of the year was that of Twaha Mukiibi, a journalist working with NBS TV who was assaulted by police officers in Kyengera, a Kampala suburb, while interviewing leaders of the notorious ‘Kifeesi’ gang, a gang which claims to be behind the robberies and murders of several innocent Ugandans in collaboration with the police. Another journalist, Sheikh Abdurhatifu who works with Vision Group Mbarara Bureau, was assaulted by a medical doctor while he was covering the story of a woman who had been wrongfully diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. In July, Damba Wiziri of Vision Group, Mbarara Bureau was beaten up by a mob under the watchful eye of police while covering the Sheema by-elections in Western Uganda. In the same month, several incidents followed in Katakwi district Eastern Uganda, where several journalists were assaulted by the police and others in a span of less than a week while covering protests in the district about mobile money tax and service delivery.

In the second part of the year, the events in Arua district, West Nile region, most notably stand out. During the by-elections for Arua municipality in August, a number of journalists faced brutality in the hands of the security forces: NTV journalists Herbert Zziwa and Ronald Muwanga were attacked and beaten live on air by security officers as they reported live the events in Arua on 13th August 2018. The journalists were later charged with incitement to violence and malicious damage to property. NBS TV’s John Kibaliza was forcibly arrested and detained at an unknown location. A week later, James Akena, a photographer working for the foreign news agency Reuters was beaten by soldiers, arrested and detained for several hours as he covered the #FreeBobiWine political protests in Kampala on 20th August 2018. His equipment was confiscated. On the same day, NTV journalists Ronald Galiwango and Juma Kirya, Observer photographer Alfred Ochwo and Mujunga Joshua of NBS TV were physically attacked.

It also came to our attention that some journalists covering the protests were forced to delete footage from their cameras and phones by the security forces deployed to quell the riots. We have also received reports from some journalists who covered the Arua by-elections that they had anonymous phone calls making death threats and accusing them of promoting the opposition. This was clearly intended to create fear and to discourage the media from giving fair coverage to opposition views and dissenting voices.

Around the same period of time a document including a list of 19 journalists’ names and contact details was circulated on social media with the title ‘Opposition opts to use media to overthrow the Government’. The document claimed to be from impeccable sources and said  that a deal had been made between the 19 named journalists and the opposition on 17th Aug 2018 at 8pm at Katonga road offices in Kampala. It’s not clear who wrote the document but several journalists named on the list denied any involvement in any such plot.

From this overview, it is evident that the media is under attack in Uganda and the situation is likely to remain volatile for the foreseeable future. It also seems apparent that there is deliberate ploy by the security agencies to target journalists at the scenes of protests to prevent them from reporting – and therefore to prevent them from informing the public about what is going on. Some have observed a pattern that security forces, while dispersing protests, often attempt to intimidate witnesses to the violence they have meted out. Most of these witnesses are journalists.

HRNJ-Uganda has been working with several stakeholders to address this deeply concerning situation. These groups include the Uganda Human Rights Commission, Uganda Police, Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF), Uganda Parliamentary forum on the Media and media houses. Key among this work was a meeting with the army leadership about the fearsome corrosion of press freedom and free expression in Uganda. The meeting with the UPDF was scheduled with Commander of Defence Forces, Major General David Muhoozi, however unfortunately on the arranged date, Major General Muhoozi was summoned for an urgent meeting and delegated the UPDF Spokesperson, Brigadier Richard Karemire to meet HRNJ on his behalf. During the meeting, several issues were raised pertaining to brutality towards journalists and Brigadier Richard Karemire condemned it and gave assurances that the perpetrators of the violence against journalists will be brought before the law.

We find it imperative to note that press freedom and freedom of speech and expression are not only about the right of the media disseminate information. It is equally about the right of the public to receive and digest information from media sources, as without this crucial function of the media citizens cannot meaningfully participate in their own governance. This abuse of power by the state security agencies in oppressing the media is symptomatic of the wider problem of the decaying rule of law in the country.