By Joe Powell
Reliable information in times of crisis is a precious commodity. For many Ugandans, however, news was hard to come by during the three days of rioting in Kampala and the surrounding area.
A key reason for this was a significant media crackdown by state security operatives, the most high profile case being the arrest of Kalundi Serumaga for allegedly demeaning the character of the President and inciting violence on air. Serumaga was apprehended following his appearance on the WBS TV show ‘Kibazo on Friday’. The host Peter Kibazo was also suspended by the Uganda Media Council (UMC) and his Radio Simba show taken off air the next morning.
The UMC crackdown also extended to the popular ‘people’s parliament’ Bimeeza talk shows in which members of the public gather to quiz panellists. They had apparently become too unpredictable and difficult to manage.
Radio stations were the first targets for the censors, with Mengo-owned CBS Radio taken off the air on Thursday evening (September 10) for supposedly inciting the rioters. They were followed by Suubi FM, Radio Sapientia and Radio Two Akaboozi Kubiri on the same grounds. Kabakumba Masiko, Minister of Information and National Guidance, said the stations had become ‘platforms to mobilise and instigate riots and violence and criminal mobs engaged in acts of theft, violence against persons, and destruction of property’.
The censorship during the crisis marked a clear transformation of President Museveni’s attitude to a free press during periods of unrest. In a speech to the opening of the National Resistance Council on Tuesday 7th April 1987 he said the following: ‘If we keep quiet, then they will say we are covering up the situation; that we are losing the war and hiding the facts; that is precisely what some of the newspapers were saying sometime ago; we then organised trips for them’¦The war is not a secret war. It is a war in which the people of Uganda have got an interest. They should, therefore, be told. I find it nonsensical to think that it is alright to talk about car accidents in papers and not about armed conflict where great issues are at stake.’
On this occasion though, a clear strategy to shut down critical media was employed.
Intimidation of the press during the riots was also rife. The incidents are too numerous for these pages but include: The Observer photographer Edward Echwalu arrested and beaten for taking photos of soldiers passing a dead body; Voice of Africa reporter, Yahya Iga Muyingo, detained in Kayunga for reporting ‘exaggerated news’; three Daily Monitor journalists briefly detained outside the Kabaka’s Kireka palace; and the storming of NBS TV’s offices by army officers who proceeded to ‘direct’ the news.
Other causes of the news blackout were self-inflicted. For example Uganda’s main television stations seemed unable to keep up with events and often switched back to regular programming while the riots were still raging. Similarly radio stations, either through choice or intimidation, appeared reluctant to give the crisis their full attention.
There were, however, forms of new media that sprang up to meet the information gap challenge. Users of the micro-blogging and networking site Twitter sent each other hundreds of updates ‘” known as tweets ‘” that provided minute-by-minute reports of what was happening on the ground. A website called Uganda Witness was also set up to allow people to report incidents that were then mapped out to provide a visual of where the hot spots in the city were. Blogs, including The Independent’s own Uganda Talks, were also able to get up to date information out to readers at a far faster pace than traditional media formats. Indeed, the traffic to Uganda Talks was so high on Friday afternoon, September 11, that the servers temporarily crashed.