Kampala — Ugandan government and ruling party officials are intimidating and threatening journalists and activists in an effort to limit criticism of the government, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Uganda will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on February 18, 2016.
The 48-page report, "'Keep the People Uninformed': Pre-Election Threats to Free Expression and Association in Uganda," documents how some journalists and activists are facing increased threats as the elections loom.
While print journalists working in English have some relative freedom, radio journalists - particularly those working in local languages whose listeners are based in rural areas - face harassment and threats from an array of government and party officials. These include the police; resident district commissioners, who represent the president; internal security officials; and the Ugandan Communications Commission, the government broadcasting regulator.
"Fair elections require a level playing field in which all candidates can freely campaign and voters can make informed decisions," said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "How can Uganda hold fair elections if the media and independent groups can't criticize the ruling party or government leaders without fear?"
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 170 journalists, activists, members of political parties, government officials, and witnesses to specific events across Uganda for the report.
President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, is running for president for his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. Dr. Kizza Besigye, who has challenged Museveni in the last three elections, is running for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Amama Mbabazi, Museveni's longtime ally and former prime minister, has left the ruling party and is running under his party, Go Forward.
Journalists have been suspended under government pressure, and radio stations threatened for hosting opposition members as guests or when panelists expressed views critical of the ruling party. Radio show hosts in Jinja, eastern Uganda, in July 2015, and in Hoima, western Uganda, in April 2014, were suspended after Besigye appeared on their shows.
When guests or radio hosts have made statements deemed critical of the government, journalists have received phone calls or visits from government representatives, threatening them with firing or suspension, and closure of their media organizations. Radio journalists told Human Rights Watch that party representatives offered them money, trips, and training, in exchange for favorable coverage of the ruling party.
Journalists also said that the government's response to political reporting is having a "chilling effect" on their coverage and analysis of political news and is preventing voters from receiving information.
"I think government intends to keep the people uninformed," one journalist told Human Rights Watch. "You see, uninformed people are easy to manipulate. Cases of intimidation are prevalent... . As journalists, we are forced to cover up. In the reporting you don't hit the nail on top. You have to communicate carefully. In election season we see this very clearly."
The government has likewise clamped down on domestic organizations, particularly those working on human rights, including voter education and oil sector transparency. Staff members of these groups said that, like media organizations, they faced visits from the police, summons by resident district commissioners, and, in some instances, closure of their public meetings. These actions violate free association rights and obstruct access to information.
"What happens here is that organizations are in a state of self-censorship," one activist said. "They know things are wrong but people don't want to get onto bad terms with government... . They are afraid to question things."
On November 26, 2015, the Electoral Commission wrote to the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy Uganda (CCEDU) to inform them that their information campaign, called Topowa, Honor Your Vote, was "biased, contrary to law." The electoral commission chairman and the spokesman accused the Topowa campaign of being partisan and pushing for "change," though the campaign was eventually permitted to resume.
In June 2015, the Special Investigations Unit of police arrested an information and security analyst with USAID in Kampala, the capital, for allegedly posting criticism of the president on social media. Charges against him of promoting sectarianism and offensive communication are pending.
In December, the Uganda Communications Commission issued ad-hoc orders to media organizations not to host the president's former press secretary, who had allegedly insulted the president and members of his family. This type of blanket banning - without any clear means to challenge the orders - violates guarantees of freedom of expression and rights of due process, Human Rights Watch said.
The new Non-Governmental Organisations Act, recently passed by parliament but not yet signed by the president, threatens to further shrink the space for independent organizations. It contains vague and ill-defined criminal offenses for staff members, such as engagement "in any act, which is prejudicial to the interests of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda." The act fails to define what "interests" or "dignity" mean.
"Government and ruling party officials have a legal obligation to allow the expression of a variety of viewpoints on issues of public concern as the country prepares for the election," Burnett said. "Muzzling free expression and prompting fear, especially outside Kampala where there is so little international scrutiny, doesn't bode well for Uganda's ability to hold free and fair elections in February."