By Flavia Nassaka
Recent attacks on journalists expose the plot to cover up crimes
Jan. 12 was like any other normal working day for WBS TV’s Andrew Lwanga. When he was assigned to cover a demonstration by a group calling itself the Unemployed Youth Association, he did not think much of it. He grabbed his camera and headed for the streets of Kampala city.
Soon, Lwanga got caught up in the melee as police scuffled with the demonstrators around Namirembe Road in downtown Kampala.
He was clobbered to near death by Joram Mwesigye; a senior police officer of the rank of superintendent of police and also the Division Police Commander of Old Kampala police station.
“I kept shouting am a journalist, am a journalist as he hit me,” Lwanga told The Independent from his bed at Nsambya Hospital, three days after the attack.
Mwesigye hit Lwanga several times on the head and the neck with a thick insulated electricity solidal cable. His equipment was destroyed. All this happened after journalists narrowly escaped being run into by the police officer who, it later emerged, has a record of misbehavior. When The Independent visited him at Nsambya, Lwanga was still in severe pain as he struggled to talk and parts of his body were paralysed and he could not stand without help.
Lwanga was in disbelief that Mwesigye ignored the blue press jacket he was wearing and went ahead to clobber him.
During the same scuffle, Joseph Ssetimba of Bukedde TV, another local television station also tasted Mwesigye’s wrath. He was beaten until his khaki trousers were torn into pieces. The camera didn’t survive either. Herbert Zziwa, a reporter with the Daily Monitor had to spend weeks nursing wounds on his head when Sam Bamuzira, the Commandant of the Election Field Force hit him with a baton at a tally center during the Luweero by-election on May 23, 2014.
Such brutal police attacks on journalists are nothing new. Hasfa Nakyanzi, a Top TV reporter, says such scenarios only bring back agonizing memories. Her face was disfigured in a similar incident in 2011. On that day, March 12, she was covering an event organised by opposition politicians in Jinja. All she remembers is a tear gas canister landing on her mouth, tearing the lower lip.
“I didn’t feel the pain on the spot. When I tried to spit what I thought was just blood, it came with my two front teeth,” she says. She still gets teary when talking about it.
A few days after Lwanga was attacked reports started coming in of police attacking journalists from other parts of the country. The attacks appear targeted to scare the press from covering scenes of police brutality, including demonstrations. The police officers and rank and file who are named are rarely punished. Most are either high ranking or are promoted to higher ranks soon after such attacks.
An Associated Press journalist, Mulindwa Mukasa was beaten and sprayed with pepper while in custody at Wandegeya police station by the Division Commander, Julius Ceasor Tusingwire. The officer also ordered for the deletion of incriminating footage.
Uganda Radio Network’s Brain Luwagga was battered by Assistant IGP Grace Turyagumanawe while still the Director of Operations during the Walk-to-Work protests.
Stories of journalists being tortured by police officers who are supposedly meant to keep law and protect citizens are countless. Unfortunately these ruthless officers cannot be named at times because, amidst the pain and scuffle, victims fail to see their name tags.
Bahati Remmy, a female journalist with NBS TV was manhandled and her blouse torn during the siege on the Daily Monitor officers in 2014. She tried to get the name of the lady officer who tortured her but her uniform had no name tag. The police sometimes hide their identity to commit crimes.
Such depressing accounts are a representation of the harsh and at times life-threatening conditions that journalists go through when on duty. In 2014 alone, 56 cases were registered, 124 in 2013, 85 in 2012, 107 in 2011 and 58 cases in 2010. Most of these attacks, 42 out of the 85 cases registered in 2012, were by police.
Sometimes attacks on journalists are not physical. They are verbal threats, shooting, arrests, clobbering, and detention, confiscation of equipment, trumped-up charges, and raids on media houses. Unfortunately when such happens, journalists have nowhere to run to.
Just three days after the scuffle, DPC Mwesigye was charged of assault and two other counts of malicious damage of cameras and a trouser belonging to journalists. Buganda Road Court Magistrate Ssanyu Mukasa granted him a cash bail of Shs850,000 and a non-cash bond of Shs2 million. Journalists felt that this case was treated very lightly, just like the others before it.
Robert Ssempala, the coordinator of the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda says he was not surprised.
“There are many officers who have gone without being penalised. The police don’t accord much importance to us,” he said.
He pointed out that despite repeated efforts by journalists to meet and discuss their plight with Inspector General of Police (IGP) Kale Kayihura, he snubbed them.
On Jan.14, journalists were sprayed with pepper and some detained when they attempted to peacefully walk to the police headquarters and deliver their petition.
Even when journalists incur heavy medical costs and lose equipment, the government does not compensate them.
But journalists this time are not about to give up since Sempala said they are now planning to petition Internal Affairs Minister, Aronda Nyakairima. They are also filing fresh charges in the High Court since the criminal evidence on Mwesigye’s file is not comprehensive enough.
Police spokesperson Fred Enanga says the issue is being handled and journalists should be patient.
But to Peter Mwesige, the Director of African Center for Media Excellence (ACME), such communication and official apologies from the police sound hollow.
He says the police batters journalists to stop them from exposing government excesses like corruption and violation of human rights. “The rulers remain jittery about the media’s power to provide a platform for dissent,” he says.
Ingrid Turinawe, an opposition politician who was also battered by police, says such torture is used by the ruling powers to create fear. She says they use abductions, censorship, disguised assassinations and other forms of pressure to tame the so called “critical” media and opposition.
In this country, she says, independent journalists are regarded as enemies to government.
According to Mwesige, such brutality has a chilling effect on free expression as some journalists will conceivably stay away from covering demonstrations and other drama-filled events that usually attract the wrath of the police.
Unfortunately, many Ugandans don’t easily make the connection between free expression and their own condition of poverty, lack of access to basic services, and powerlessness. If they did, condemnations of police brutality on journalists would not be coming from mainly media practitioners, he says.
Earlier in 2013, parliament launched the Parliamentary Forum on Media with the Speaker of Paliament, Rebecca Kadaga, as its patron. The aim is to better media laws and advocate for media freedom to complement the constitutional provisions on the right to freedom of expression and access to information. Two year later, Mwesige says, media laws and proposed changes to these laws are predicated on control and not regulation.