By Haggai Matsiko
International civil rights activists unanimous in condemnation of media rights violations against media and journalists
For the first time in decades, newspaper stalls and vendors did not have three prominent newspapers. The Daily Monitor, Red Pepper and Kamunye were not printed because police raided the two media houses and closed them down. Two radio stations belonging to the Monitor Publications Limited – KFM and Dembe – also went off air.
Their crime was declining to handover a copy of a letter they published two weeks ago. The letter was written by Gen. David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza, who acknowledged that he was indeed the author. International and local civil rights groups have been unanimous in their condemnation of the police’s act, describing the raid “as the wildest attack” on the media and a chilling illustration of the limits of press freedom in the country.
At the Namuwongo-based Monitor Publications Limited (MPL), which President Yoweri Museveni has in the past severally referred to as ‘that enemy paper’ because of its critical reporting, about 50 police officers, in uniform and others in plain clothes stormed the publication’s premises in three vans and sealed it off.
The police claimed they were searching for a leaked letter authored by the coordinator of intelligence services General David Sejusa (a.k.a Tinyefuza) that contains allegations of a ploy to eliminate those opposed to plans by President Yoweri Museveni, to have his son succeed him – referred to as the ‘Muhoozi Project’.
Workers could not be allowed to move out as the police ransacked everything at the company. Though they claimed to have a search warrant from Nakawa Court, the armed men also disabled the printing press, computer servers and radio transmission equipment, according to Alex Asiimwe, the MPL Managing Director.
“The intention was to prevent the Monitor from operating broadcasting and printing its newspapers,” he said.
The police also ordered the disconnection of electricity from the premises and attempted to shutdown the publication’s website but failed.
Ronnie Muyimba, Daily Monitor’s Digital and Technical Manager, told The Independent that one of the police officers found him editing web content and asked him where the computers with internet were before ordering him to shutdown the computers.
“One of the police officers wanted to disconnect our internet and website, Muyimba said, “He asked me where the computers with internet were and asked that I switch them off. When I told him [the police officer] that thee computers are not forcefully shut down, he just forcefully pulled out the power cables from the computer.”
The officer was then overheard confirming to his bosses that he had disconnected everything.
Sources at MPL told The Independent that President Museveni had personally called top management cautioning them to halt any further publication of the Sejusa stories.
Monitor could write about him because he was a revolutionary but was not to involve his family members, Museveni had cautioned the bosses.
Ironically, President Museveni’s son is the Commander of Special Forces; the First Lady Janet is the Minister for Karamoja and his brother Salim Saleh, the Presidential Advisor on Defence, are by the nature of their portfolios public officials.
Asiimwe, the MPL managing director, said the raid was illegal because the matter was already being handled by the courts of law. As soon as news went around that Monitor was under siege, a group of human and civil rights activists swamped around the paper’s premises with cello tape on their mouths to protest the police action.
Further away at Namanve, about 10 Km from Kampala, armed police had also descended on Uganda’s leading tabloid and closed it down too. The police continued occupying the media houses, which they had labeled “crime scenes.”
The Red pepper, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Richard Tusiime said: “We are saddened and disappointed that despite us complying with the court’s request, the police have refused to vacate our premises and to allow us to carry on with our work. They insist that they are carrying out more searches for documents which they neither told us nor the magistrate who gave them the search warrant.”
Tusiime, suggested that the police’s raid was not about the Sejusa letter but a long term plan orchestrated to cripple Red Pepper economically and disable its capacity to do any more business in Uganda.
“We have been informed that the plan is to keep our offices closed for as long as they like, dismantle our new printing press, destroy our computers and servers by installing malicious malware and then hand over the junk when they are satisfied that we have been taken back to the stone age,” he added.
Meanwhile, police insisted they were acting within the law and said they would continue with the search until they find the documents.
As expected, Information Minister Mary Karooro Okurut would put on a brave face to justify the raid as intended to safe guard “national security” interests.
“The Police went through the due legal process and secured a court order – which was issued by a court of competent jurisdiction (Nakawa Chief Magistrates Court),” she said. She was referring to a court order police secured on May 15 ordering the Monitor to produce the original copy of the letter and disclose its source.
However, what she did not say is that the search warrant did not mandate the police to close the media houses and prevent them from doing their work. In fact, Monitor had appealed against the warrant citing national laws that protect sources of information for the media. As it is, this incident has only gone a step further in putting Uganda’s image in bad light internationally.
Despite a fundamental change promised in 1986, the media has not had an easy ride under President Museveni. In 2011, the country slipped 43 places to 139th position in the Press Freedom rankings by Reporters without Borders, an international organisation that campaigns for a free press. The latest development that has been extensively covered by several international organizations is likely to worsen the situation.
Tara D. Sonenshine, the US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs early this month cited Uganda among the countries whose political leaders wrongly equate freedom of the press with a compromise in national security.
In some countries, including Uganda, there is often a failure – from government and from citizens – to appreciate that a free and independent press is essential to building a transparent, well-informed, and engaged society.
The African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) said the police’s action was a blatant disregard of court process and therefore rule of law, which was meant to send a signal to the Ugandan media and the public that critical reporting and commentary on sensitive affairs of government will not be tolerated.
Apart from ACME, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders (EHAHRDP) the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) have all criticised the government for the crackdown on the media.
“Police should resolve legal disputes before the courts without resorting to abusive tactics to scare journalists away from politically sensitive stories,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at HRW, “Muzzling the media is a bad way to address Uganda’s political debates.”
No doubt, May 20 will remain a dark day in Uganda’s media history and a constant reminder for journalists that the State could crack them down whenever they rub them the wrong way.
For Ugandan journalists, the implications are far-reaching. Eriasa Mukiibi Serunjoji, a senior journalist at MPL, told The Independent that the younger journalists at the paper were already too scared. Other journalists and media houses are also living in perpetual fear that they could be the next victim.
Reactions to Monitor, Red Pepper closure
Meddie Kaggwa, Chairman, Uganda Human Rights Commission
Personally, I am disheartened as a human rights defender. No one can be happy about what is going on. Our call is for the government in situations like this is to take any offender to courts of law to be charged instead of breaching human rights provisions. We can’t stop the government from doing its work but it must do it within the confines of the law and the constitution.
Alex Asiimwe, Monitor MD
The management of Monitor Publications Ltd strongly condemns the closure by Uganda Police today of its newspaper, The Daily Monitor, and its radio stations, KFM and Dembe FM. We are horrified by this act, which is a gross disregard of Ugandan Law and a violation of [our] constitutional right.
This matter is in court and management has contested the demand by the police for us to disclose the source of the story, and the matter is yet to be decided. It is particularly perturbing that the police ordered our operations shut down under the pretext of carrying out a search. It is unacceptable that our business should be crippled on a dispute that should be settled in court.
Joshua Kyalimpa, President, UJA
This attack comes when journalists have just celebrated the world press day which was celebrated on the 3rd of May on a theme safe to speak securing freedom of expression in all media, This is therefore to remind security organs and government of their constitutional obligations under article 29 and other instruments that guarantee freedom of expression and the media.
During World Press Freedom Day discourses in Kampala, Mbale and Gulu, journalists noted that threats on journalists are rampant across country. Therefore, the attack today may not be surprising but shocking given that government has given assurances that the situation will improve for the better.
Dr. Peter Mwesige, Director ACME
I am unhappy. It is absurd, and not only a violation of Monitor’s and Red Pepper’s rights but the rights of Ugandans. It is about the public’s right to know, to share information; the police have denied people that information.
When the Supreme Court was annulling the provision on reporting false news, they decided that freedom of expression was more important for democracy than other rights, so this must be condemned. The government set up a Media Council to settle [such] disputes so they could have filed a complaint with it. Secondly, they can go through the Court and be willing to wait for the process.
Daniel Kalinaki, Former managing Editor Daily Monitor
As regrettable as it is, it was an accident waiting to happen. The signs have been on the wall for a while now.
I suspect it is too soon to tell what the effects will be but one suspects that self-censorship would creep deeper into the media, raising the premium for speaking truth to power and questioning authority. But the media are only a cog in the wider democratisation wheel and the attack is on many actors. Raiding newspapers can push the conversation underground but it cannot stop it.
Monica Chibita, Head, Dept of Mass Com, UCU, Mukono
My hope is that whatever caused the closures can be resolved and the media houses are re-opened because it is good for media to operate freely and government to work freely. It seems to be a crisis and I hope the crisis is resolved.