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Time to sue police for attacking journalists

By Joan Akello

Robert Ssempala, the coordinator of the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ) talked to The Independent’s Joan Akello about why individual officers should pay for their crimes

What activities is HRNJ carrying out?

Since 2005 when HRNJ was established and formalised in 2006, we have been monitoring and documenting attacks on media freedom. We have done public litigation and boosted capacity of journalists to ensure adherence to professional standards. We work with media related organisations and have a legal team that offers free legal assistance and also takes cases of abuse of journalists’ rights to court.


Of the 124 violations you documented in your latest report titled `Narrowing Space: Media under Siege in 2013”, about 85 were committed by the police. What are you doing about it?

Police has always ranked as the worst violators of media rights and freedoms. Acting on the advice of the Inspector General of Police (IGP), we have petitioned the Police Professional Standards Unit to discipline errant officers but not even one case has been conclusively investigated and a report issued. So we are now resorting to pursuing individual police officers in court.

Is that why Mulindwa Mukasa, one of your leaders has sued a senior police officer?

Cases where we have pursued the force have not yielded much. In 2009 we won a case (HCT-00-CV-MC-0036-2009) against the police force over Special Police Constables who released dogs to attack Timothy Sibasi and Francis Tumwekwasize of WBS and hit Tumwekwasize’s leg with a metal bar. To date the money has not been paid;Shs 15 million for each of the journalists. The Attorney General pays the costs. So we have resorted to sue the individual perpetrators. With the support of the Centre for Public Interest Law (CEPIL) and the East African Media Institute (EAMI-U), Mulindwa resolved to drag Julius CaesarTusingwire to the High Court on May 20 as the first culprit for harassing and mistreating a journalist.

Mulindwa says Tusingwire, District Police Commander (DPC) infringed or threatened his right as enshrined in the Constitution of Uganda when he ordered his officers to slap, unlawfully search, assault and confiscate his gadgets.His prayers are that court dismisses Tusingwire from or declares him unfit to remain in the Uganda Police Force or to serve the government of Uganda in any official capacity specified in the Leadership Code Act, 2002. We also want a public apology from him because many journalists started fearing to cover police stations after this incident and we want court to order damages such that it can cause him some pain to incur that money.

But do you think a single police officer can pay damages considering their low pay that is if it is not delayed?

We cannot underestimate his wealth, but that is the real intention of this suit. That the offender runs around looking for that money and that will serve as a preemptive measure to those that would like to do the same. They would be dead scared knowing they will pay exorbitantly in court. It’s about safeguarding the safety and security of the journalists. We are not willing to settle this out of court.

How did Tusingwire react to this lawsuit?

He will be before the Lady Justice Lydia Mugambe of the High Court on Sept.9 at 9am. So far, Tusingwire has put in his defense of course denying the allegations, but he has used the Attorney General to respond yet the plaint is Mulindwa Mukasa vs. Julius Caesar Tusingwire, and does not involve Attorney General or IGP or Police Force anywhere.

What challenges have you faced in this case so far?

Phone calls are being made to the lawyers, Mulindwa Mukasa himself, and HRNJ and people supporting Mulindwa. I suspect they may want to break our backs by resorting to irregular acts, but it has also divided our colleagues and sections of the police. We cannot predict other challenges;like the usual frustrations of court, and delayed justice.We have not had the IGP getting involved in violation but if he ever dares, we will not hesitate to have him in the dock.  Every time we meet him, he says he wonders why police officers keep hitting journalists yet journalists are only armed with pens and papers. But he still does not do much to save the situation. He has personally compensated journalists to a tune of Shs 6.2 million.

Who in particular did he compensate?

He compensated William Ntege a.k.a Kyumakyayesu, who was manhandled on November 24, 2013 at Wandegeya police station. We made noise about Ntege’s cameras so Judith Nabakooba Police spokesperson then called Ntege one Saturday morning. She asked him how much his two cameras were worth. He said about Shs 6 million plus. A few minutes later, she called and he received the money. He was told to send an SMS to the IGP saying he has received it. We are entirely opposed to that process, that is not formal, because whose money are you receiving?

Is it money from taxpayers, money meant for police operations and salaries, or Kayihura’s personal money? Ok, you have cashed Ntege out and bought his silence but what are you doing to the perpetrators? Does it ensure the safety and security of the rest of journalists in the field? We told Ntege that. Later, the cameras Kayihura bought him were smashed when he was in the field and he went back to Kayihura. This time Kayihura said he is a joker. He has never been compensated; police targeted and saw him out of employment. I talked to a high profile officer who told me that they will make it very difficult for Ntege to continue working and no media house can hire him because they fear. That is why we are in court. Should we lose, we would have done our best and should we win; it will become a landmark judgment for liberating the media.

You have another case, a petition against the Press and Journalist Act, 2014, Cap105 in court, how is that fairing?

The date has not been fixed to hear this case but the grounds are clear. We think it is eating back the freedoms and rights as provided in Chapter four, Article 19 in the Bill of Rights. It seeks to criminalise journalistic work. Government is at fault to implement this law and the Statutory Instructions of Rose Namayanja, the Minister of Information and National Guidance stem from it. The Media Council is wrongly constituted; it purports to have two representatives from the Uganda Journalists Institute which has never existed. Jabweri Okello represents this nonexistent institute which is also supposed to have a board to discipline and register journalists.  A lot is still lacking for us to respect the Media council.

It has more politicians than the technical people from the media. We came up with an alternative legislation to this law that was geared towards self-regulation, serving the same purpose as the Press and Journalists Act but the government ignored it. We oppose the entire law in its current form; the state is party to the workings of media so we cannot have it regulate its own and private media houses. We went to court last year to challenge the Interception of the Communications Act; it is ill-intentioned because big brother is watching and listening. It provides for mandatory Sim Card registration. The application was not heard because it had been overtaken by events. We are also planning to challenge the Uganda Communications Act.

What do you make of the reports that one of the TV stations has been banned from covering the president while in the past journalists or media houses have been banned and shut down?

We talked to the people in that same media house and they said the station had not got communication to that effect and that there is no cause for alarm and the station will cover the President. So it meant that the very victims denied being victims. I think they were intimidated.But of late I have been observing and may be they have been cleared to cover the president but that has a chilling effect for other media houses which will never want to show the president in a sleeping mode even if he sleeps 90 percent of the time at a function.I have not seen the president sleeping at a function since, so could it be that he has not slept or that the media are more cautious now? In the end, self-censorship is a growing trend, eating into media space.We know of certain dailies where not so many opinion pieces or stories about South Sudan are published and some sources no longer talk to journalists because they know their views will not be aired or published.

Do you think media owners and managers are fighting this oppression or pressure the right way?

No. Edgar Agaba, who may become the CEO of National Social Security Fund (NSSF), fired his station manager in Western Uganda for hosting retired Bishop Zac Niringiye, Norbert Mao and Maj. Gen.  Mugisha Muntu to discuss electoral reforms. Another media manager who runs a string of media houses has also issued a restrictive directive to all staff of TV, radio and print to the effect that journalists should not write anything that is anti-KCCA, anti -Museveni and should not carry any voices from civil society activists. At an opportune time we shall challenge this letter in court, you cannot remain professional if you are not balancing your stories. At another publication, we heard that journalists were stopped from expressing political views on social media but when is it a personal or professional view? The media managers have not supported media independence.

How?

I think they have prioritised profits over professionalism and because government is the biggest advertiser, they have scaled down content to infotainment; you see less critical debate. The Internal Affairs minister, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, told me that (names newspapers) signed a concession last year with government but were returning to their old ways of reporting. He said he will not allow them. These media sign concessions to save their licenses from being revoked today, but forgetting its impact in future. It is illegal and they should stand up in the courts of law but they fear because of the unknown but as HRNJ we can take it up.

We are supposed to defend media houses though they and some journalists sometimes fail to either appear in court or collaborate in court proceedings. A female journalist was beaten up in a family land wrangle after she was identified as a press person. She reported the case but ran away after testifying in court. She feared the family. But we won the case and she got damages.  Other journalists are scared by their employers.In all cases we want affected journalists compensated. But we also want perpetrators punished so that we can end this impunity.

What should journalists do now in preparation for 2016 general elections?

Even during by-elections journalists have been harassed in Masaka. Two journalists were arrested at night and kept incommunicado during the recent Luwero by-election. A journalist was victimized after hosting an opposition candidate in Kasese. We certainly know that whenever we are going closer to elections, it gets unsafe. So we must be proactive in capacity building in the areas of security and safety of journalists to know the likely risks, where, and who to run to, contacts you must have, what to carry and wear while covering elections.  We are engaging with security, Uganda Human Rights Commission, and Electoral Commission to embark on civic education so that they do their part as we train the media.

What are your parting notes?

Media freedom is our freedom. No single journalist, media house, or HRNJ will do it. We should push for it.  We have to press leaders to account, and promote development journalism. We also entertain the public so that they can also relax, but without the former two, we are just a discotheque.

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