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Ugandan media in crisis

Andrew Mwenda and IGP Okoth Ochola

The journalists under their umbrella body, the Uganda Journalists Association (UJA), the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-U), and the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA) called for a total blackout on police activities following what they described as sustained attacks on journalists. They pointed out the attacks on journalists covering a recent strike by Makerere University students.

The strike at Uganda’s top university became a violent scene when the armed forces attacked students with teargas, Stun grenades, and live ammunition fire during day. When night descended, the heavily armed forces under the cover of darkness broke into student rooms, beat them up, vandalized their property and allegedly sexually assaulted female students.

Although journalists covering such events often expect to be caught up in the fracas, they say they were caught unawares when police deliberately targeted them with beating, teargas, and arrest.

The Ugandan public was outraged. The U.S Mission in Uganda and the European Union Delegation in Uganda said they were concerned about the violence at Makerere University.

“Footage of security services attacking unarmed students in their residence halls and attacks on journalists covering the protests are especially disturbing,” a US Embassy statement noted, “This heavy-handed response by security services is uncalled for, and is a direct affront to the freedoms of assembly, speech and expression guaranteed by Uganda’s Constitution.”

“We urge the Government of Uganda to allow all Ugandans to exercise their basic rights peacefully and without fear,” the statement added.

The European Union in Uganda also condemned the brutality in a statement dated Nov. 1, 2019. The EU said it was alarmed by the use of force and arrest of journalists attempting to cover the events at Makerere.

The Uganda Human Rights Commission issued a statement calling upon both the university and the security forces to ensure that all accredited journalists are allowed to do their work independently. But the police justified the attacks saying the journalists were to blame for siding with the striking students. The journalists were not impressed by the Police response.

What journalists want

In the petition, the UJA leadership asked the police to pursue lasting solutions to the continued violation of rights of journalists and the rights of Ugandans.

“Our petition and other acts of protests have been sparked off by the violation of rights of journalists while covering the recent Makerere University students strike during which police officers did not only block journalists from doing their work but also assaulted them leaving many of them injured,” the statement read in part.

Kazibwe, the UJA president said no single security personnel has been paraded, highlighted and or shown to the public; especially those ones involved in orchestrating violation of rights of journalists in the country. 

UJA referred to “many other countless similar incidents” of police officers and soldiers assaulting journalists and interfering with their work, noting that for many years, reports by the Uganda Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Network for Journalists have singled out the Uganda Police Force and the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) for being the leading violators of the rights of journalists and other Ugandans.

Besides demanding compensation of the journalists who were assaulted and those whose equipment was damaged, UJA asked the police hierarchy to pass the directive to all police officers, to with immediate effect, stop assaulting journalists and interfering with their work.

“It is not police’s business to tell us how to do our work,” Kazibwe said.

The leaders of the Uganda Journalists Association, Uganda Parliamentary Press Association and the Human Rights Network for Journalists also asked Ochola to parade and publicly prosecute all police officers who assault journalists and interfere with their journalism work.

The journalists asked a committee with lawyers and experts on human rights to develop a well-researched strategic plan for redeeming police’s image through set short-term and long-term measures for ending police’s violation of the rights of journalists and other Ugandans.

“Considering that when you became IGP you promised to transform police, we ask you to undertake necessary measures to make the Uganda Police a professional state institution that is not only subordinate to civilian authority but also neutral (independent) and driven by public interest other than interests of individuals.”

“If you the IGP are not ready to undertake the above recommended measures and many other necessary measures to redeem the image of Uganda Police Force from one that violates the rights of Ugandans to one that promotes and protects the rights of Ugandans, we humbly ask you to resign.”

Robert Ssempala, the national coordinator of HRJN-U told The Independent on Nov. 18 that the journalists took to the streets in a desperate measure to express their dissatisfaction with the way journalists continue to be mistreated while doing their work.

In fact, this is not the first time Ugandan journalists have boycotted police activities to protest Police’s shabby handling of media personnel while covering controversial news events.

In March, 2007, the Human Rights Journalists Network announced a similar boycott after heavily armed police and security officers stormed the High Court during the hearing of a bail case involving six suspects of the rebel outfit—the People’s Redemption Army.

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