During February’s polls in Uganda and the campaigns that preceded them, journalists had a tough time of it, being harassed and intimidated by both ruling and opposition parties. With Museveni still in power, it doesn't seem the situation will improve anytime soon. But at least journalists are out of immediate danger – for now. By TOM RHODES.
The election results were announced on 18 February with incumbent President Yoweri Museveni winning with 68% of the vote in presidential and parliamentary elections. It was one of the tightest races Museveni faced in nearly 25 years of power, and his supporters were keen to suppress the rural press to ensure another presidential term. For once, his main opponent Kizza Besigye [http://www.kizzabesigye.org/] was not in jail or threatened – as in the previous two elections, and there was even a net increase in electoral participants, many young and eager for change. Besigye’s Inter-Party Cooperation party had 26% of the votes, although Commonwealth observers claimed the elections were marred by the lack of a level playing field during the campaigns. This could be witnessed in the threats to journalists outside Kampala who reported on voting discrepancies and tried to interview opposition candidates during the election campaigns.
Last month, police in the north-eastern town of Moroto arrested Daily Monitor reporter Steven Ariong over several articles, including one that claimed mysterious ballot boxes being transported using a helicopter into the Moroto region. Police detained Ariong for almost three hours and compelled him to sign a statement accusing him of publishing false information, before he was released on police bond.
The week before this incident, the district police commandant of Lira, Asraf Chemonges, summoned all radio managers and owners in the central sub-district of Lango for what he called a dialogue with the media to ensure peaceful election reporting, said Aken Patrick, programme manager at Voice of Lango FM. Patrick knows who the police in Lango support. In April 2010, police grilled him for having hosted opposition party candidate Olara Otunu on air. This time police warned the media against announcing any election results except those from the national electoral commission, a body the country’s supreme court ruled as corrupt and in violation of the country’s election law, according to news reports.
Some of the threats against the press outside Kampala were more deadly. A melee erupted near Bugusege, eastern Uganda, between supporters of the ruling National Resistance Movement party candidate Beatrice Wabdeya (who is minister in the office of the president) and her rival in the constituency, Nandaala Mafabi.
Most of the attacks and harassment of the press during the elections were not a centrally orchestrated affair. “It’s most often the district police commander, the resident district commissioner or the district internal security officer,” Human Rights Watch senior researcher Maria Burnett said. “One of the key foundations of the NRM is that you show loyalty by cracking down in your area. When you don’t do so enough, you are punished … so people get the hint fast that acting non-partisan is not a good career choice.” Ruling party MP Tinkasiimire Barnabas admitted last year the residential district commissioners are often uneducated fanatics that abuse their positions. “Most cases of journalists roughed up by officials are RDCs. They even campaign during elections, though they are not meant to do this.” The MP and presidential affairs committee member said they planned to address the issue. According to the general secretary of the Uganda Journalists Union, Stephen Ouma, police and RDCs represent the “number one violator of press freedom” as they stifle voices of dissent to esnure a ruling party electoral victory.
But harassment and intimidation tactics are not always necessary. Elite NRM supporters have compromised many journalists with fiscal inducements to ensure positive coverage, Ouma told me. Furthermore, the harassment of journalists is bipartisan. Opposition party groups also harass and intimidate the press, the union general secretary said, especially journalists who work for the state media and are, therefore, automatically accused of a ruling party bias.
Whoever the perpetrators may be, they do it with full knowledge they will get away with it. “Indeed some feel they are kings in their own world and to some extent they are because they do it with impunity,” said Lynn Najjemba, editor of the rural radio debate project. This project is run by Panos, a media development organisation that supports rural media initiatives.
The Ugandan Human Rights Network for Journalists has cited at least 11 cases of election-related attacks or harassment of journalists since the campaigns began last November, programme coordinator Geoffrey Ssebaggala said. Of these, 80% occurred in rural areas. “I find there is a massive difference between the English-speaking Kampala-based media and the rural radio journalists,” Burnett said. “Clearly the government has figured out that a majority of the voters are not reading in English.”
With the majority of rural radio stations owned by NRM politicians, local journalists fear any moves that may anger their paymasters. In the western city of Mbarara, the management of Endigito Radio sacked presenter James Kasirivu over an opinion poll held in December that gave the main opposition contender Besigye a clear win, the UHRNJ reported. Kasirivu (known locally as “the Great”) was presenting a weekday radio programme called “World Express”.
Despite all the efforts to suppress the press, the perpetrators lost the battle. Ugandan civil society was already aware of the unfair playing ground opposition parties encountered in the elections. A consortium of civil society groups called the Democracy Monitoring Group alleged that more than 400,000 registered voters were actually foreigners and 5,000 were older than 110 years. If ruling party supporters wanted to suppress the press to avoid negative international publicity, this battle too was lost. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton issued a report that criticised the government’s handling of the opposition and the media, as well as the independence of the electoral commission.
Although it was primarily ruling party supporters who censored Uganda’s press prior to the elections, we may see a more centralised effort to quell dissent with Museveni’s resumption of power. Uganda’s largest mobile telecomms company has agreed to check and possibly block SMSes on orders of the state-controlled Uganda Communications Commission, according to news reports. Fearing threats from opposition candidates that the public would protest Museveni’s return to power, some of the key words the commission has singled out include: Tunisia, Egypt, Mubarak and Ben Ali.
Thanks to the Interceptions and Communications Bill sailing unopposed through Uganda’s parliament last year, the government has a free pass to infiltrate any potential protests supported by social media tools. Harassment and censorship of the press will undoubtedly continue after Museveni’s electoral victory. But perhaps broadcasters outside of Kampala will breathe a small sigh of relief now that the blatant harassment and threats during the campaign are over. FAM
Tom Rhodes is a freelance journalist and consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media advocacy organisation that seeks to protect press freedom worldwide. Tom has worked as a teacher at a university in Khartoum, Sudan, and a contributor for the Integrated Regional Information Network. In 2004, Tom helped initiate southern Sudan's first independent newspaper, The Juba Post, in Juba. He was the editor of the paper for more than two years while also a BBC contributor. He wrote and edited several pieces for Small Arms Survey, Unicef and the UN Development Programme during his stay in Sudan. He is a history graduate from the University of Massachusetts and has a Masters in African Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow him on Twitter at @africamedia_CPJ
- CPJ calls on Uganda to protect journalist shot by soldiers, at the Committee to Project Journalists website
- Shrinking space for freedom of expression and media freedom ahead of 2011 general elections, at the UHRDN Unwanted Witness blog
- The Democracy Group.
Photo: Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni talks to the media after casting his ballot at a polling centre in Kaaro High School in Rushere, Kiruhura district, about 300 km (186 miles) west of the capital Kampala, February 18, 2011 REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya