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Is Uganda’s press freedom a myth?

By Andrew M. Mwenda

For a long time now, Ugandans and foreigners have praised the government of President Yoweri Museveni for being ‘tolerant’ of press freedom. I have been inconsistent on this issue. Sometimes I believe we enjoy a relatively good level of media freedom and freedom of expression generally yet at times I feel the creeping hand of fascism. Part of this confusion results from the personalised way in which our country is run ‘ nothing of significance happens without the president’s personal involvement.

Thus, when Museveni has been in good mood or on top of public debate, he has allowed and defended a high degree of free debate. Yet whenever he has felt threatened, he has not hesitated to unleash the wrath of the state on anyone who dares challenge him. Thus, over the years, critical voices in our media have been systematically eliminated or threatened ‘ some through bribery using state patronage like Teddy Sseezi Cheeye and Tamale Mirundi, some have been forced into exile like Charles Onyango-Obbo and Conrad Nkutu, others have been killed and the rest have tens of criminal charges against them.

Over the last four weeks, Museveni and his apparatchik have launched a frontal assault on independent media. They shut down five Luganda FM stations for ‘telling lies’ (never mind it is the president who judges what is true and what is false), for ‘insulting the president’ (it is Museveni who calls his predecessors swine and refers to journalists as vultures) and ‘inciting the public’ (yet there is evidence of government inciting one ethnic group, Banyala, against another, Baganda).

Then government demanded and media owners accepted to suspend bimeza (public debate) on national issues. The government also demanded and media owners accepted to remove radio and television talk-show hosts whom the state objects to. Indeed, with that level of intimidation, most media decided to censor themselves. A classic example is KFM radio. Once the bastion of free speech, KFM and Monitor management took all their radio talk-shows off air and instead throughout the crisis aired Museveni’s speech ‘ ‘the truths’ ‘ about what was happening.

For many years, there has been a general consensus that Museveni personally is tolerant free debate. I am a part time believer in this view because both through personal interaction with him and reading about the man, Museveni comes across as an enlightened president. Yet there is a fascist side to him that is scary. This is the man who scorns the rule of law (he has sent hooded gangs to invade courts of law), shuns due process (believes that military court martial ordered public executions offer better justice than our civil court system) and is always ready and willing to run rough-shod over rights in person and property (like he did with Kizza Besigye in 2005).

The kidnapping of talk-show host Robert Kalundi Serumaga, his detention and torture for speaking his opinions are only a tip of an iceberg. The current manhunt against Kampala Central Member of Parliament (MP), Elias Lukwago, is another example of an extended effort to suppress dissent. These are not actions of a strong government. They are desperate acts of a regime that has lost both popular support and legitimacy but still wants to cling to power at all costs.

The current crackdown on dissent should be understood in the context of the 2011 elections. Having survived a second round with only 638,911 votes, it seems Museveni and his apparatchiks are scared of a presidential election. The plan is therefore to stifle all voices of dissent, deny the opposition a platform to challenge the status quo and use fear and intimidation to retain power. The evidence to back these suspicions is contained in the proposed election amendment bill before parliament. Apparently, the government is proposing that election results can only be announced by the Electoral Commission after seven days.

On top of this, the government is involved in the procurement of services for the registration of voters. Without public support, the NRM’s election strategy may be to place many ghost voters on the register to bolster its chances. It is inconvenient to openly rig an election in an atmosphere of free debate and free dissemination of news. Therefore, the first step on the road to a massively rigged election is to intimidate journalists and media owners, accuse them of telling lies and force them into self-censorship.

Will these strategies work? It depends. Independent media owners may make short term compromises to safeguard their businesses. Although this may win them short term survival advantage, it will certainly lead to their demise in the long term. A fascist system does not come by the gallop but by the creep. There will never be enough compromises to a regime that is rapidly losing legitimacy. Every day, it will demand more from the media owners and from journalists. Since diverse media like we have in Uganda can only thrive in a free environment, the consistent closure of this space with the acquiescence of media owners will lead to their doom.

A democracy cannot exist when everyone works for themselves. It is through organised political expression of one’s interest that any group can engage the state in an effectively healthy confrontation to elicit concessions from it. Media owners and journalists and the wider intellectual class in Uganda need to close ranks and defend our liberty. NRM leaders too should support efforts to defend our country from self destruction.

Otherwise our fate will best be captured in the words of Martin Niemoller, a German clergyman, in a poem criticising German intellectuals for acquiescing to Adolf Hitler’s rule. ‘First they came for the communists and I did not speak out because I was not a communist,’ he wrote, ‘Then they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one to speak for me.’

amwenda@independent.co.ug

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