By Haggai Matsiko
Uganda police abused its power and the law by closing two independent newspapers and radio stations in the wildest media attack, The African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) has said.
Armed police raided and closed down The RedPepper, a tabloid, Uganda’s largest independent newspaper, The Daily Monitor, and its sister radios, KFM and Dembe FM, following reports that the President was grooming his son, Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, to succeed him.
At the Namuwongo-based Monitor Publications Limited (MPL), which Preident Yoweri Museveni has in the past severally referred to as ‘that enemy paper’, police officers, some in uniform and others in plain clothes arrived in three vans, stormed and sealed off the premises.
The police claimed they were searching for a leaked letter General David Sejusa (Tinyefuza) containing allegations of a ploy to eliminate those against plans by President Yoweri Museveni, to have his son succeed him also referred to as the ‘Muhoozi Project’.
Workers could not be allowed to move out as the police ransacked everything from the production plant to the newspaper’s printing press that they later switched off before their electricians disconnected electricity, leaving the entire premises in darkness.
The police also attempted to shutdown the publication’s website and failed. Ronnie Muyimba, The 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.
“When I told him [police officer] computers are not forcefully closed,” Muyimba said, “he said if I wanted force he could use force. Then he forcefully pulled out the power cables out of the computer.”
The officer was then overheard confirming to his bosses that he had disconnected everything. But Muyimba told The Independent that the website was still up and running and that they would keep posting the stories.
“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 which should be settled in court,” said Alex Asiimwe, the MPL Managing Director.
On the outskirts of the city at Namanve, about 10 Km from Kampala, armed police had also descended on Uganda’s leading tabloid and closed it down too. Both newspapers could not publish on May 21 and neither will they do so the following day, sources said the police was still at the premises and denied journalists access.
“All four are important sources of information for many Ugandans whose right to receive information has been violated by the police action,” noted ACME, a Kampala-based independent, non-profit organization that trains organisation.
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, who said they had handed over to the police a copy of a press release received from Sejusa’s lawyers and published in The Red Pepper, citing government sources, noted 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.
Tusiime recalled a similar incident in 2008 when men with guns, dressed in military uniform and riding government pick-up trucks bombed “this same printing press and burnt it down.”
Meanwhile, police insisted they were acting within the law and said they would continue with the search until they find the documents. Information Minister, Mary Karooro Okurut also justified the raid citing ‘national security’.
“…the police is working within the parameters of the law, specifically, section 37 of the Penal Code which bars the publication of information prejudicial to national security, Okurut said in a statement, “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).
However, Okurut and the police ignored the fact The Monitor lawyers appealed.
“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,” Asiimwe, said.
ACME said “the police action, itself a blatant disregard of court process and therefore rule of law appears to be 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.
“The Ugandan government should immediately end politically motivated police intimidation of newspapers and radio stations and ensure that the media can operate freely,” HRW said.