Following months of attacks on journalists, the head of the Ugandan police force has created a press unit that will receive and investigate complaints of press freedom violations, report the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), ARTICLE 19 and Freedom House.
"This development comes at a critical time when journalists in Uganda are starting to lose hope of getting justice for the numerous abuses and violations meted against them by both state and non-state actors," said ARTICLE 19.
Police official Simon Peter Kuteesa will run the new unit, which he told CPJ he expects to be operational in three months.
Kuteesa is the former head of the police's media crimes unit, a division specially designed to monitor Uganda's press. Wokulira Ssebaggala, program coordinator for HRNJ-Uganda, is sceptical. "So the Media Crimes department, formerly run by Kuteesa, will continue to function alongside this new department...We are not optimistic about this but will wait and see," Ssebaggala told CPJ.
According to HRNJ, attacks on journalists in Uganda nearly doubled from 2010 to 2011, with more than 100 cases recorded last year, up from 58 in 2010 and 38 in 2009. HRNJ says most of the attacks were committed by police, and none were investigated conclusively.
The trend continues into 2012. CPJ has recorded 10 cases already this year of police physically attacking the press.
For instance, in April, Rebecca Nakame, a reporter with the government-owned Bukedde TV, was attacked by a mob in Bweya village in the Wakiso district on the orders of a special police constable, after she reported on a local land dispute, reports HRNJ.
In March, Ugandan police officers attacked three journalists as they covered the release on bail of jailed opposition leader Kizza Besigye, says HRNJ. The journalists had to seek medical treatment for their injuries.
The police force's attitude toward the press is a problem, Sula Mutebi, a cameraman for Bukedde TV, told CPJ. "Political leaders see the press as activists. President [Yoweri] Museveni recently accused the press of being bribed so, whether right or wrong, we are seen as the opposition to authorities."
Mutebi himself has been assaulted. A female police sergeant slapped Mutebi and detained him at a police post for an hour and a half last week after he attempted to cover a story about a murder investigation in Kampala, reports CPJ.
According to CPJ, the high number of police attacks against the press is also due to the political tension on Kampala's streets in recent years. Mass opposition rallies against rising fuel and commodity prices, known as "walk to work" campaigns, have placed the police in a tight spot, with little interest in media coverage of their actions. "Especially during demonstrations, individual journalists have been targeted as police try to kill the evidence of their own actions," Ssebaggala told CPJ.
IFEX members question whether the new department represents a genuine effort to end attacks on the press with impunity or is simply a public relations stunt.
Just last week, Ugandan police attacked two journalists, just days after Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura publicly apologised to the media for the excesses committed by officers against the press, reports CPJ.
"I apologise for whatever has happened to journalists. I am going to re-open and investigate all of the 107 cases committed against journalists in 2011," he told journalists at a meeting organised by HRNJ.
According to CPJ, this is not the first apology from the Inspector General, who marched with journalists in an unexpected show of solidarity on World Press Freedom Day last month. "He can apologise today but tomorrow someone is beaten up," Ssebaggala told CPJ.
Mutebi is hopeful and thinks police attitudes are changing. "Actually the police wanted to press charges against the officer that assaulted me. For once I was invited to file a case, so it is an encouraging sign," he told CPJ.