Abuses cast dark shadow on Uganda’s democracy
On Tuesday this week, a UBC Star TV journalist set up her video camera beside Shimoni road opposite the Headquarters of Uganda Broadcasting Services to capture footage of a lady conducting mobile money business in Kampala as she had been assigned by her editor.
Out of the blue, a vehicle suddenly stopped. A towering muscular lady dressed in a yellow T-Shirt jumped out of the car and ordered Maurine to stop shooting.
She told an apparently frightened journalist to immediately delete the footage she had obtained if she did not present permission from the Uganda Media Centre.
The unidentified overzealous ‘NRM’ cadre said: “This is not how a country is run. That is why your cameras are crashed everyday.”
It took the courageous intervention of colleagues to stand up to the ‘NRM’ bully and tell her off. The lady made it obvious she had ‘naked’ power besides her as she pulled out her gun from her bag and threatened to ‘discipline’ the ‘errant’ journalists.
The lady was clearly ignorant of the fact that its not the mandate of Uganda Media Centre to license local journalists, but rather the business of the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda (NIJU) a body that remains more on paper than in practice.
But the attack on Maurine represents a worrying spike in physical and psychological extra-judicial onslaughts on journalists and media houses in Uganda especially since the start of the current campaign season.
The Human Rights Network of Journalists – Uganda (HRNJ) says it has documented over 40 election-related incidents since the start of the current election cycle in Oct 2015. Most of the offenders, HRNJ officials add, include overzealous NRM cadres and unprofessional or ill-informed police officers.
Robert Ssempala, HRNJ’s Coordinator has decried the increase in attacks on members of the fourth estate. Ssempala said in a statement that the he attacks on the journalists are intended to suffocate journalists rights, freedom of expression and media rights that are provided for in the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.” He urged the government to exercise its obligations of protecting journalists who have suffered abuses at the hands of the Police and members of the ruling party.
“Of all the occurrences, Police is responsible for 28 of them, majority of which are assault and malicious damage to property. In some cases politicians from the ruling party have beaten journalists during campaigns, damaging their gadgets and police has looked on even where cases have been reported,” Ssempala said.
The escalation in attacks on journalists continues despite a recent report titled: “Keep the People Uninformed” by leading human rights organisation New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW). HRW asked the government to issue a clear and public statement to all government officials and members of the ruling NRM party to refrain from any intimidation, obstruction, threats, harassment, and arbitrary arrest of journalists.
Happening during the crucial electoral period, human rights advocates add that the threats have a deliberate but devastating effect on people’s ability to make well informed choices particularly in the coming general elections.
HRNJ says that journalists hosting political talk shows face an even greater risk and increased pressure from supervisors not to give platform to Members of Parliament and individuals with views divergent from those of government.
“These actors are currently facing threats of closure or suspension of their operating licenses. It is now becoming criminal to host or provide a platform to those considered “anti, rebel or indiscipline” politicians,” says Ssempala.
The increased attacks also come against the background of a move by the Parliamentary Commission to introduce more restrictive measures on the coverage of Parliament.
The Parliamentary Commission recently introduced measures banning non-graduate journalists with less than three years of working experience from covering the 10th Parliament. The measure has been widely criticised as illegal and unnecessary.
Parliament followed up its threat with the closure this week of an office that had been given to the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA).
Journalists covering Parliament have petitioned the high court with the view to stopping Parliament’s unconstitutional measures.
Lawyer Isaac Ssemakadde from the organisation Centre for Legal Aid, has been approached by the affected journalists to fight for the lifting of barricades on their office. Ssemakadde has petitioned parliament to lift the barricades as well as refrain from other acts that reduce rather than promote transparency of proceedings of Parliament. He says that if Parliament does not lift the blockage of parliament reporters, they will take the matter to court.
But close followers of the media in Uganda argue that the latest restrictions are not surprising but rather part of a deliberate and consistent trend by the NRM government to close voices of dissent with the view to entrenching the government in power.
Nicholas Opio, a human rights lawyer argued in a presentation at Hotel Africana last year that the NRM government was a military regime with a growing level of impatience to freedom of speech and or the media.