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Ugandan media in crisis

Journalists protest against police brutality. INDEPENDENT/ALFRED OCHWO

Recent protest against police attacks exposes weakness within

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Polly Namaye, the deputy spokesperson of the Uganda Police Force, on Oct. 31 walked into the offices of the Uganda National Examinations Board. The exam body was holding a press conference to explain preparations for the Primary Leaving Examinations that were about to start. Namaye, a calm communicator with a fast tongue, was to speak on security matters.

But when her turn to speak came, many of the journalists who had diligently engaged with the other speakers picked their bags and equipment and walked out on her. Only two journalists, from the government-owned newspaper, The New Vision, stayed.

That event marked the start of a two-week blackout that the Uganda Journalists Association (UJA) had slapped on coverage of police activities over the force’s brutal battering of journalists.

Four days later on Nov.04, the UJA leaders together with representatives of some media-aligned NGOs and many journalists decided to increase pressure on the police with a protest march across town to the headquarters of the force in the Naguru suburb of Kampala city. But the police blocked them. And, as always, teargas was soon fired and batons brandished. Several journalists were injured and many were arrested, including the UJA President Bashir Kazibwe.

The police accused them of holding an unauthorized march. But Kazibwe said the brutality meted out on journalists seems to be well orchestrated by security agencies.

“We are just messengers and we don’t know why police are turning against our members whose only crime is carrying a pen, notebooks and cameras.”

According to a report released by the Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda (HRNJ-U), the security forces, especially the police, are the worst offenders of media freedoms.

Of the 135 violations against journalists last year, 83 were committed by the police. That is more than 60%. The HRNJ-U findings show that over the past four years, there has been a spike in police aggression in Uganda.

Kazibwe, however, had many other worries. First the police appeared to have shrugged off the media blackout with the Inspector General of Police, John Martins Okoth-Ochola, adamantly refusing to meet the protesting journalists. Then there was the lack of solidarity from the media houses that employ the journalists.

By the time the journalists were pounced on, no media owner had spoken out in solidarity or support of their activities. Despite the widespread prevalence of media capture, whereby media ownership and leadership in Uganda has been captured by powerful and wealthy political and business figures pursuing personal gain, the journalists appear to have expected words of encouragement.

Even the Uganda Editors Guild, headed by Daniel Kalinaki, the General Manager Editorial of Nation Media Group in Uganda which runs the top private media outlets NTV and Daily Monitor among others were quiet. Just as was Kin Karisa, the chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and Andrew Mwenda of the Independent Publications Ltd who often speak out and write against such oppression.

Faced with silence, Kazibwe was left lamenting.

“We are sending this message humbly and resolutely to our dear media houses, our employers please be part of us in this struggle. We cannot work productively when we are lame and or hospitalized. This is a struggle geared towards protecting the rights of media practitioners in Uganda,” he said.

At least three journalists who were beaten were from The New Vision and NMG. Alex Esagala, a photojournalist working with Daily Monitor, Geoffrey Twesigye, of NTV Uganda and Lawrence Kitata of Vision Group were hit with teargas canisters by the police. It is not clear why their employers could not speak out for them.

The Nov.14 deadline which UJA gave police to respond to a list of eight demands before their media blackout could be lifted passed without a response from IGP Ochola.

“We are disappointed in the police and this is an indication that police has no will to stop the brutality on journalists and Ugandans,” Moses Mulondo, the president of the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA) told The Independent on Nov. 18.

Mulondo who is a writer for the government-owned New Vision newspaper said the police reaction showed that there is no commitment from the force to end torture of journalists and the “impunity and disrespect for the people who pay their salaries and maintain their welfare.”

When The Independent asked the police to explain why they had not responded to the journalists’ petition, Patrick Onyango, the deputy police spokesperson, referred The Independent to his senior, Fred Enanga, who failed to pick our calls.

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