The Uganda Police Force has come under sharp criticism from the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ-Uganda) for violating laws on freedom of expression by carrying out numerous raids, temporary closures and threats to radio stations that hosted or planed to host opposition politicians.
Robert Ssempala, the Executive Director of HRNJ told a news conference this week that over the past two weeks, Police in western Uganda has interfered with up to four radio stations that hosted two leading opposition politicians.
Ssempala said: “HRNJ is deeply concerned with the heightened declining media space in Uganda.
During the last three months, we have witnessed numerous arbitrary attacks, raids, threats and orders to media houses by police and other state agencies.
Ssempala said that two radio stations from Western Uganda were raided in Western Uganda for allegedly accommodating dissenting views.
Ssempala said that on the night of Thursday 27th March, the police in Kabale town, led by the Kabale District Police Commander Mr. Bosco Arop stormed the studios of Voice of Kigezi and stopped a talk show on which Bishop (Rtd) Zac Niringiye and the President of the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change Mugisha Muntu had been hosted and allegedly accused the duo of inciting violence and disturbing peace.
The two prominent government critics have been going around the country in recent weeks explaining their programme that calls for major reforms in laws governing the Electoral Commission ahead of the 2016 general elections.
Arop allegedly ordered the host the show one Namanya Santurina to halt the two-hour talk show. HRNJ said that earlier in the day, two other radio stations Hope Radio and Kabale Freedom Radio had been ordered not to host the electoral reform activists.
“The arbitrary raids by the police is leading to censorship of information and unbalanced presentation of views to the public for fear of being closed down,”
Ssempala further attacked the police for violently blocking peaceful assemblies calling it ‘despicable especially if it is geared towards narrowing space and limiting platforms for free exchange of opinions and ideas.’
He stressed: “This is contrary to the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and access to information.
Ssempala criticized police’s of arbitrary and unlawful raids on the radio stations and peaceful assemblies instead of resorting to courts of law. He particularly expressed concern that some of the police officers who have led the raids, were previously in charge of the Police Professional Standards unit in Kampala.
Thomas Kasimo was previously working as the Deputy Commandant of the Police Standards unit, before he was moved to Kasese.
Ssempala said: “This is the force that is supposed to keep into shape errant police officers. If he is now at the helm of muzzling the media, we don’t know what to expect from the PSU.”
The raids are not much different from many previous ones that have seen Police violate laws to invade media houses and stop them from performing their duties.
Last year, the Police illegally invaded the Red Pepper, the Monitor Publications and its sister radio stations in what was claimed to be an attempt to recover a letter by a renegade head of intelligence agencies Gen. David Sejusa.
There are fears that the raids are part of a broader government agenda to keep the media under check. However critics argue that the government which claims to be democratic and whose constitution guarantees basic freedoms, cannot block the general public from effectively participating in free and open debate.
“Freedom of the press is fashioned to ensure unfettered interchange of ideas for bringing about political and social changes desired by the citizenry. The media plays a very fundamental role in preserving a free and democratic society.
He added: “Therefore where free flow of information is restricted, people are restricted from speaking out their minds and where journalists are blocked from disseminating information is typical of an unprogressive system.”
“As HRNJ-Uganda we appeal to Police to desist from interfering in media work under the guise of executing orders from above or citing security concerns,” Ssempala.
The threats to media stations also come in the wake of new regulations issued by the Minister for Information Rose Namayanja to journalists requiring them to obtain a certificate in order to practice. Namayanja has also ordered radio stations to allocate one free full hour to government programmes, something that has been opposed by most private media owners.
HRNJ in collaboration with the Justice Centres Uganda and the Eastern Africa Media Institute have challenged the Press and Journalists Act as well as the new regulations on registration of journalists.
Ssempala noted that very soon, they plan to sue police officers in their individual capacity under the Anti-Torture Act for engaging in violations of human rights against journalists.
Efforts to get a comment from Police spokespersons on this matter were futile as their telephone numbers were constantly busy.