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Police brutality against journalists on the rise

 

By Pearl Natamba

Gen. Kayihura, AIP Nuwabwiine,  AIP Kanyesiza cited for various abuses

For all the five times I have been assaulted by police, I have never gotten the chance to see who has done so but this time around I managed to,” says Siraje Lubwama, a reporter at The Observer newspaper in Kampala.


Lubwama arrived at Buganda Road Court in Kampala at 9am on March 28 to report on Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) President Kizza Besigye’s trial on charges linked to the recent city violence that resulted in the killing of Assistant Inspector of Police (AIP) John Michael Ariong.

The court session ended and Besigye, who had been bailed, was moving out of court followed cheering Activists for Change (A4C) supporters when chaos erupted.

The police attacked Besigye’s supporters standing next to his car and beat them up prompting the oppositionleader to warn the officer in charge, Lawrence Nuwabwiine, the Kampala Traffic Director, against torturing the A4C activists.

“You are brutal but you will pay for your brutality,” Besigye warned Nuwabwiine.

As the two faced off, Lubwama was one of several journalists on hand to record the angry exchange. Unfortunately for him, he happened to be right next to Nuwabwiine who angrily grabbed him by the collar. Amid the scuffle, Lubwama fumbled to pull out his press card hoping Nuwabwiine would realise he was just a journalist doing his job. Instead, the press card appears to have made Nuwabwiine angrier. He dragged Lubwama into the Central Police Station (CPS) and proceeding to punch and kick him all over. Inside CPS, Nuwabwiine was assisted by a policeman who Lubawma describes as “a tall uniformed policeman checking people entering CPS”.

“He told the junior officers to beat me thoroughly since there were no cameras,” Lubwama narrates.

In the melee, Lubwama recalls feeling someone touch his pocket to remove money. His phones fell down and broke. Lubwama says he had Shs 206,000 in his pocket before he was dragged into CPS but he found only Shs 100,000 when he checked again after his release.The police brutality meted out on Lubwama and other journalists outside the main police station, where all the top ranking offices have offices and should have witnessed it, caused the other reporters and photographers to shout and demand his release.Among them was Chris Obore, a senior editor at The Monitor newspaper who confronted the Kampala Metropolitan Police boss, Felix Kaweesi who first feigned ignorance of the motives of his brutal men.

“Why are you beating him,” Kaweesi asked his men. None of them answered. As the angry voices of the journalists grew louder, Kaweesi, moved outside the station to try to calm the situation. Kaweesi’s departure left Lubwama once again at the mercy of the torturous police. He was beaten and dumped into the cells.

Lubwama says he shared a cell with three other detainees who happened to be opposition Activists for Change (A4C) members and had been badly beaten.  The beating continued in the cells. Lubwama was freed after 30 minutes, when Obore, the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, MP Nandala Mafabi and MP Ibrahim Ssemujju intervened. Obore told The Independent that “the police looked eager and ready to beat up anyone” and were working under Nuwabwiine’s orders to be brutal.

Lubwama attempted to file a case against his attackers but he says he was blocked by the AIP Kanyesiza who hid the book for registering cases. When Nandala Mafabi intervened, the book was brought back and the case was registered. In previous cases, such cases against the police have been frustrated by the Director of Public Prosecution.

The attack on Lubwama and other journalists is the latest in what is becoming a pattern of actions intended to intimidate the press and scare it from reporting on the activities of a force that has become increasingly partisan and brutal since Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura was appointed to head it.

Three other journalists, Moses Nyanzi and Joseph Mutebi, who report for the government-run vernacular paper, Bukedde, and Hasifah Wanyana of Kingdom FM, were also beaten up. Mutebi, a photographer, tried to file a case against his attacker but police blocked him.

Early in March, the police beat up two other journalists, Edward Echwalu and Anatoli Luswa.

Kayihura has apologised for the attacks but journalists blame him for the continued police brutality.

“As an institution we condemn torture or unnecessary use of force and we endeavor to punish any individual involved in this act of brutality,” Kayihura said at press conference after the attacks.

But his conduct has been criticised internationally.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement that the “Ugandan police are engaged in a cynical cycle in which they beat journalists covering opposition events, apologise afterward, and then repeat their unacceptable behavior”.

“Top police officials must send a clear message that they will not tolerate violence against the press and will hold their subordinates responsible for unprofessional and criminal behavior,” the CPJ East Africa Consultant, Tom Rhodes, is quoted to have said.

Gen. Kayihura, who has been praised by President Yoweri Museveni as “a true cadre” appears determined to crush both the opposition politicians involved in protests against the government and journalists who report about them. To ensure a total news black-out, the government on March 29 approved a new communication strategy that broadly outlaws reporting on any intelligence, security, defense information, sensitive court cases, cabinet decisions, or anything deemed sensitive by the government.

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