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Shrinking civic space as journalist beating extends to UNHRC

What the law says

The Human Rights Enforcement Act and Article 50 of Uganda’s Constitution empower the individual Ugandans who feel their rights have been violated to sue individual officers for violation of human rights and the institution under which they belong is liable for paying the fines/damages as determined by courts of law.

Shrinking civic space

During the just concluded general elections, journalists covering opposition NUP presidential candidate Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine were often assaulted by the police and other security operatives. The most vicious attack being in Masaka  on December 27, 2020 where a Ghetto TV camera person, Ashraf Kasirye, was hit by a rubber bullet on the head and has been fighting for his life in hospital. Other journalists like Ali Mivule of NTV had his pants torn down by a rubber bullet.

Some political analysts argue that the zeal by men and officers in uniform to protect the Museveni regime makes them to treat any one with opposing views to the current government as an enemy. In spite of President Museveni’s publicly confessed need to respect those with dissenting views from his, the actions of his security forces speak loudly the opposite.

Between December 11, 2020 and Feb. 17, a quick research shows that at least 20 journalists in Uganda especially those covering opposition politicians have been assaulted by security personnel. These are attacked while on duty. For instance, last year on December 11, in Lira district, security personnel used batons and the butts of their guns to assault a group of at least six journalists covering the campaign of Kyagulanyi in that area.

The assault was repeated on December 27, 2020, when police in Masaka district fired at and injured over three journalists covering Kyagulanyi’s campaign.

Lawyer and Ndorwa West MP, Winfred Niwagaba, says the challenge that the military and police in Uganda face today is viewing themselves as protectors of the interests of one man, President Museveni, instead of all Ugandans and that that’s why they fiercely attack anyone who opposes Museveni.

“The problem we have with the military and the police is that most of them see their job as protecting the interests of Museveni. A person with dissenting views is seen as an enemy of the regime. That’s why journalists who cover Kyagulanyi whose views are different from those of Museveni are being targeted by the security operatives,” Niwagaba said.

Government Spokesman Ofwono Opondo arrogantly says the assault of journalists by security forces is an occupational hazard that journalists have to live with. “The mistreatment of journalists is not confined to security forces. Even the outgoing parliament threw out journalists. It is an occupation hazard. This is not to say that it is an institutional policy of the police or military to beat journalists or any citizen. It is a case of misconduct of individual officers just like the recent incident,” says Opondo. He argues that sometimes the training of military and police lacks the skill of absorbing personal pressure when faced with heated political environments.

The assault of journalists going about their work has not started yesterday nor is there commitment to end it soon. “When you see the beating journalists then know that the worst is yet to come,” warns Ibrahim Ssemujju, former journalist now MP, Kiira Municipality. He reasons that it is disturbing that the soldiers kept beating the journalists as they recorded implying that in cases where there are no recordings it is worse.

The police IGP Martins Ochola instead of condemning the actions of his officers seemed to be parting them on the shoulders.  In December, police spokesman, Fred Enanga issued a statement regretting the beating of journalists covering opposition political rallies, claiming that the police Media Crimes Unit had opened investigations into the Masaka incident where journalists were fired at and injured.  However, little seems to have changed.

DGF closure

The attack on journalists which is an attack on freedom of speech and expression, has not spared civil society organisations either.  Early this month, the country woke to the news that biggest funder of several CSOs and some government departments, the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) had been suspended by a directive of President Museveni.

DGF which was funding activities like civic education and empowerment of citizens to hold their leaders accountable has had its bank accounts and activities suspended pending investigations by the Ugandan authorities.In the lead up the January 14 presidential elections, several NGOs in Uganda had their bank accounts frozen by the Financial Intelligence Authorities on various grounds most of which were bordering their civic duties.

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