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Crackdown was the word of the year in 2011

By Miriam Mukama

Police, army make the media’s mission impossible

I shouted, “Don’t shoot me, am a journalist please don’t shoot me”. I begged and almost lost my breath. But before I could finish saying it, a security operative had already fired a bullet through my knee. Gideon Tugume, a crime and political reporter with Capital FM in Kampala, told his story to The Independent.

Tugume was shot on May 12 last year along the Kampala-Entebbe highway while covering the return of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leader Dr. Kiiza Besigye from seeking medical care in neighbouring Nairobi, Kenya. President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 26-years, was being sworn-in the same day for a 4th term of five-years after winning a disputed election. Besigye had rejected the results and was leading demonstrations when he was brutally assaulted by security personnel prompting his evacuation to a hospital in Nairobi.

His return witnessed running battles between mammoth crowds that turned-out to welcome him back and a combined force of police and army personnel determined to block them. Stones were thrown and teargas and live bullets were fired. Several people, including journalists, were injured in the melee.  For Tugume, however, more pain at the hands of security personnel lay ahead. He was attacked again early this year. This time he was with his family.

He says his wounds, both the psychological and physical scars, have marked his life and that of his family permanently. He says he is anxious when he drives his car because his legs sometimes suddenly become numb.

“When I am driving, I sometimes cannot feel my legs and I get worried that I might get involved in an accident,” he says.

Although he can walk, Tugume says he is now finds difficulty and worries a lot when carrying out his duties. He expects to go for an operation soon and hopes this will improve his condition.

“Most times when I wake up in the morning, my right leg is stiff,” he says.

Shrinking space

Tugume’s case is one of several highlighted in the Uganda’s Press Freedom Index report 2011 released on Feb. 7 by the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ).

The report highlights numerous extreme human rights abuses committed against journalists and the failure by the government to meet its responsibility to protect, promote, and uphold media freedoms and the rights of Journalists. It chronicles the shootings, physical attacks, unlawful arrests, confiscation of equipment, restrictive legislation of the media, and infringement on the independence of the media.

More than 100 journalists suffered such attacks in 2011 according to the HRNJ report entitled “shrinking and sinking”. It says Uganda registered more press and media freedom violations last year compared to 58 journalists who were attacked in 2010 and 38 who were attacked in 2009.

“The space for press freedom in Uganda is sinking and shrinking,” says Godfrey Wokulira Ssebagala, the HRNJ Program Coordinator, “the government should play their role to stop it from sinking further.”

By the end of 2011, about 30 journalists had pending charges against them in various courts. Only Daniel Kalinaki and Henry Ochieng, both editors at the Monitor Publications Ltd recently had their cases disposed of although the principle of natural justice demands that justice must be speedy and fulfilled.

The HRNJ report accuses the police and other security agencies of confiscating video cameras and other equipment from journalists. Between April and May, ten cameras were confiscated by security operatives as journalists covered the opposition Walk-to-Work protests.

The HRNJ report follows one issued by the international press watchdog, Reporters without Borders, who also released their press freedom index 2012 on Jan. 26 showing Uganda ranked at 139 after falling 43 places.

“Crackdown was the word of the year in 2011,” says Reporters Without Borders, “Never has freedom of information been so closely associated with democracy. Never have journalists, through their reporting, vexed the enemies of freedom so much. Never have acts of censorship and physical attacks on journalists seemed as numerous especially in Uganda.”

Systemic attacks

Journalists were targets of violence and surveillance for their coverage of the presidential and parliamentary elections in February and the brutal crackdown against the protests that followed. Dozens of journalists were beaten up and a number of them arrested. Encouraged by President Museveni, Uganda launched an unprecedented crackdown on opposition politicians and the independent media, the report says.Journalists like Christine Nabatanzi of Radio simba, Hasfa Nakyanzi of Top TV, Charles Dixon of channel 44 and others were attacked over this period. Several journalists were murdered, subjected to arbitrary arrests and torture, intimidation and harassment among other untold suffering at the hands of the authorities.“Security personnel always think that we are working for the opposition and many party leaders don’t trust journalists, which is not true and sincerely this puzzles me,” says Tugume. This tendency indicates a systematic and calculated move by the police and other agencies to obstruct journalists from executing their duties.Joshua Kyalimpa, the president Uganda Journalists Association (UJA), says most attacks on journalists are politically motivated because most of them are identified as opposition journalists.Peter Mwesige, the Managing Director African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), agrees. He says the condition of media freedom in Uganda has progressively deteriorated since the return of multi-party politics and that the recent attacks on the media are part of a broader pattern that precedes the latest standoff between the government and the opposition. “Those attacks are clearly related to exposed impunity of law enforcers and therefore make journalists a big threat because most of the perpetrators fear to be exposed,” Mwesige says.

HRNJ-UGANDA notes a high degree of impunity by the law enforcement agencies and reluctance by other institutions to pursue the perpetrators in spite of concerted efforts to engage them. In the course of 2011, newspapers were raided, but there were no serious investigations by the police to establish who the culprits are.

Pointlessly defensive

But Ibin Senkumbi, the Police spokesman for Central Police Station (CPS) where most of the atrocities are committed, instead blames the journalists. The media fraternity should respect their code of conduct because most of them want a borderless operating community which is impossible, he says. He strongly emphasises that the disciplinary action be enforced on journalists who disobey rules.“We have tried to improve our relationships with the media and I am very certain that the relationship is improving not deteriorating like the report says,” he adds. Another officer, Julius Musigo , who is the member of the CID staff at Kiira Road Police in Kampala where journalists are usually interrogated, says most security operatives attack journalists because they do not know the importance and role of a journalist. “If someone doesn’t know your work, most of them won’t understand what it takes to be a journalist and also respect it,” he says.Senkumbi, like Musigo, says security personnel need to be educated about the role of the media. He says dialogue between journalists and security personnel will help remind them of the obligations they have to each other. Leaders of media organistions like Kyalimpa agree and want to intensify engagement with the government to ensure that media rights are respected. Unfortunately, although these efforts are often quickly funded by the international donor community, they have had little success.As a result, apart from physical attacks, even the legal regime which is easier to address continues to pose a danger to the enjoyment of the freedom of expression and the press. The government appears to deliberately stifle efforts to bring existing media legislation in line with the Constitution of Uganda and International standards. Article 24 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda states that, “No person shall be subjected to any form of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. “It is the responsibility of the government to enforce the freedom of journalists and to ensure that the constitution defends journalists and other people at large,” says Haruna Kanabi, the Executive Secretary of the Independent Media Council of Uganda. Sadly for now, it appears government like the police and army think it is their responsibility to make the media’s mission impossible.

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