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Journalists and security forces

Uganda Police Force violently arrest journalist Ashraf Kasirye in Luuka District on November 18, 2020 while covering Presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu.

The question of professionalism when the two parties meet in the field 

Kampala, Uganda | JULIUS BUSINGE | November 2022 is a month that Henry Sekanjako and Timothy Murungi, all journalists with New Vision are waiting for to receive justice for their case reported to court in February last year.

The duo accuses soldiers of Uganda People’s Defence Forces of assaulting them in February 2021 at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Kololo, Kampala.

The journalists were among the many that had been deployed to cover the former Presidential Candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu who was delivering a petition calling upon the UN body to take action against security agencies for violating the rights of Ugandans.

“I didn’t provoke the UPDF officer; I was going about my work holding my notebook, a pen and mobile phone, only to be battered on the head and shoulder,” Sekanjako told The Independent on September 14, 2022, “I found that to be unprofessional for a trained officer of the army,” he added.

Sekanjako continues to be mentally disturbed by this assault; especially whenever he is reminded of the events.

Sekanjako said, when journalists go to the field, they go there to report what they see but not to be assaulted.

“I call upon the government to always come through and resolve such unprofessional acts so as to protect media freedoms but also encourage the young people to join the profession.”

Experts say, an unprofessional force is one that acts outside the laws and policies guiding a certain profession which results into violent acts.

More journalists assaulted 

Sekanjako’s case is among the 707 cases involving human rights violations and abuses committed against journalists and media practitioners that have been recorded by Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) in the past five index reports conducted between 2016 and 2021.

The continued abuse and violation of press freedom and media rights is responsible for the decline in Uganda’s ranking under the World Press Freedom Index from number 117 in 2018 to 125 in 2021.

Analysis made basing on the five reports, points to a very tough environment for journalists doing their watchdog role; especially on those holding public offices.

For all the HRNJ-Uganda reports reviewed by this reporter, they put the Uganda Police Force as the leading offender of media rights – which to some sources talked to during the course of doing this story is linked to the lack of professionalism among some members of the security forces.

Robert Sempala, the executive director for HRNJ-Uganda said Uganda has a progressive legal regime for the protection of press freedoms but hurdles remain to the full enjoyment of these rights.

He blamed overzealousness of the police and army when dealing with members of the media, existence of archaic laws that restrict press freedom, regulation overreach by the Uganda Communication Commission and the growing culture of impunity.

Locally, there are several laws governing the work of journalists including Article 41 (1) of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda which states that every citizen has a right of access to information and Article 29 (a) which provides for freedom of speech and expression which include freedom of the press and other media.

Other laws include; the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act (2012), the Access to Information Act (2005) and Access to Information Regulations of 2011, the Data Protection Act (2019) as well as the Human Rights Enforcement Act (2019). Globally, Uganda subscribes to legal frameworks like the one enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Indeed, the HRNJ-Uganda Index report for 2021 says, with the current national and international legal framework regarding media, the State has a noble duty of upholding freedom of expression and the media and that media players should continue to demand for protection and preservation of this very important right.

The report says, media players should continually focus on ethical and professional media practices, which can be realised through training, mentorship and embracing best practices from elsewhere within like-minded media fraternities.

It also calls for the amendment of laws that seek to restrict the enjoyment of press rights and freedoms; re-establish the Personal Data Protection Office as an independent entity and not under NITA-U as is currently incorporated.

Media researchers and veteran journalists like John Baptist Wasswa (journalism lecturer) says, some of the laws like the Press and Journalist Act 2000 which were meant to professionalise journalism have instead been used to criminalise the practice of journalism. Wasswa also cites the recently passed bill in Parliament, the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill, 2022 and The Penal Code Act (amended 2007) and others as a threat to journalists since they could easily be used to target journalists.

Wasswa argues that journalists should be allowed space to cover the news so they can inform the public who cannot be everywhere.

“Security forces must know that people holding public offices will always be talked about in the news,” he said. To avoid confrontation with security forces, Wasswa said, journalists must be excellent at reporting the truth by fact-checking before they publish any news items.

He added that security forces that more often go to the field to interface with journalists should go to police training schools so they can equip themselves with media knowledge and act professionally.

“Most field officers do not know how media works,” he told The Independent, “that is why many have assaulted journalists and in the end forced their top bosses to come out and apologise before journalists.”

Sekanjako said, for security forces to act professionally, they should follow the laws and policies governing media freedoms. He also said continuous engagement between security forces and the media will improve their working relationship.

“We are not politicians when we are covering the news,” Sekanjako said.

Indeed after the February 2021 incident happened, the then UPDF Chief of Defense Forces, Gen. David Muhoozi apologised to the media fraternity and pledged that the army would clear the medical bills of journalists that were assaulted by their officers.

Muhoozi also promised to take action against the errant UPDF officers – which they did weeks later by charging and remanding them.

“That incident is regrettable and I want to extend my apologies to those friends of ours who were assaulted. The UPDF cares and recognises the importance of the smooth partnership with the media and of course the population. Therefore, we would be the last people to target a journalist or anyone for that matter in an illegitimate way,” Muhoozi said.

Sempala (HRNJ-Uganda) told The Independent that the UPDF has exhibited a high level of professionalism and urges the Uganda Police Force to do the same.

“We continue to ask security forces to act professionally since we operate in the same environment,” Sempala said, “in fact journalists should feel secure while on duty amidst security forces instead of them being beaten.”

He said that such a working relationship would lead to smooth coverage of issues about democracy, human rights, elections, and constitutionalism in the news spaces.

Sempala also said that they will continue to push for dialogue with security forces to ensure that the set guiding professional rules are followed whenever the two parties meet in the field.

“When we talk to each other during good times, do capacity building, it gives us hope that when we meet on duty there are ground rules to follow,” he said. He also said, that security forces should always follow the law whenever they think that journalists have crossed the line of their duty instead of assaulting them.

“When we engage with an open heart, a lot can be saved in terms of media freedom ranking and the image of the security forces,” he said.

Voice of security, government

Fred Enanga, the Uganda Police Force spokesperson said, altercations between the media and the police rotates around professionalism on both sides. But he said, most times the problem is not caused by the Police.

“We have dealt with many journalists and realised that sometimes there is a lot of pressure from the editors, owners of media houses who insist on getting a certain story from their reporters even when it compromises their security,” he told The Independent, “that has sometimes caused friction between journalists and our personnel.”

Despite having topped the list of media rights violation in many reports, Enanga said, they continue to sensitise their commanders on the issues of police-media relations and media regulations to ensure that their force act professionally. He also said, there is a specific media module that their officers in training go through to ensure that they understand the role of journalists in society. Serving officers are also retooled with media modules to ensure professionalism is ensured while on duty with members of the media.

“…as you can see we have not had many cases regarding media violations in 2022,” he said. He said, Police has continued to engage with media institutions like Uganda Editors’ Guild, media associations, media outlets, and individual journalists to improve their working relationship.

Enanga added that in some cases where their personnel have used excessive force against journalists, they have punished the offenders to send a signal to the rest of the members of the force to act professionally. During political seasons, Enanga says there is a lot of activity on both sides and sometimes the media is aligned to certain groups which causes tension.

“There should not be any problem if the level of professionalism is observed on both sides,” Enanga said.

Chris Baryomunsi, the minister for ICT and National Guidance said, government has sent out a message to its security forces to respect journalists on duty because the latter has a responsibility to inform, educate and entertain society.

“There is need for mutual respect,” he told The Independent, “Security forces should know journalists are doing their work.”

He said there is emphasis on training of the incoming security officers on how to handle journalists in the field and to understand the role journalists play in society.

On the other hand, he said, journalists too should be trained on how to cover events that are likely to result into their rights being violated by security forces. They should also be clearly dressed in their press jackets so they are easily identified while on duty.

Global lessons 

A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation report published in 2018 with a title ‘Freedom of Expression and Cultural Order – Fostering the relationship between security forces and journalists’ says that for the two parties to work in harmony, there should be a developed code of conduct or standard operating procedures on media relations. This will give security officers instructions on how to behave towards journalists and to allow journalists to access information.

It also calls for specific spokespersons for maintaining contact with the media; clear media zones during an event; briefing journalists (on technical procedures) and security forces (on the role of journalists) before an event; planning of procedures by security forces on how to work with journalists before, during and after an event. It also focusses on the need to organize informal visits of security forces to media organisations and inviting journalists to meet security forces in their premises to exchange information on respective perspectives and constraints

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This story was written with funding support from Media Freedom Committee, Uganda.

One comment

  1. Both the media and the police should respect each other.

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