5 March 2016

Uganda: After Disputed Election, Police Target Media

Twenty nine-year-old Ugandan photographer Abubaker Lubowa was excited when he was assigned to cover the campaign of opposition leader Kizza Besigye. He said he did not anticipate that the assignment would mean he would make the news almost as often as he covered it.

On February 27, Mr Lubowa and a colleague at the privately owned Daily Monitor newspaper were arrested at the opposition leader's private residence in Kampala, where Dr Besigye has been confined since the disputed election results were announced on February 20, extending the 30-year rule of President Yoweri Museveni.

On February 22, at the same location, Mr Lubowa and another photographer, Isaac Kasamani of the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), had been attacked by a man wielding a pepper spray can in the company of uniformed police. Mr Kasamani was extensively covered in stinging spray but Mr Lubowa managed to escape -- just as he did on November 16 when another colleague, Isaac Kugonza, suffered a cracked skull in clashes between protesters and police.

Uganda has long had one of the most vibrant media environments in the Horn of Africa, but the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented a series of attacks on journalists covering the political opposition, particularly during elections.

During the most recent campaign, radio stations were closed down and journalists beaten or arrested -- including one radio talk show host who was pulled off the air mid-broadcast and detained alongside seven politicians he was interviewing.

Now, local journalists and press freedom advocates say that the controversial election may usher in a prolonged period of media repression.

"When you consistently raise questions about the legitimacy of any set of rulers, you inevitably trigger panic in their minds," Haruna Kanaabi, executive secretary of the Independent Media Council, an association of Ugandan media companies, told CPJ. "But the crackdown against the media is ill-advised because journalists are not the ones raising the questions. They are simply conveying the queries that many have raised about the election. They should be allowed to do their jobs."

The February 18 vote was criticised in forthright terms by international observers. The European Union concluded that the Electoral Commission lacked "transparency and independence" and that "state actors were instrumental in creating an intimidating atmosphere."

The Commonwealth team of observers noted the "increased prevalence of money in politics, alleged misuse of state resources, inequitable media coverage, and question marks over the secrecy of the ballot and the competence of the Electoral Commission to manage the process."

The decision by authorities to block social media platforms on election day was also strongly criticised, with CPJ pointing out that restricting access to platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook made it harder for citizens to report on any voting irregularities.

The Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, an independent advocacy group, reported that more than 40 journalists had been detained, beaten, or forced out of work while covering the presidential campaigns between October and February.

The organisation's legal officer, Diana Nandudu, told CPJ the situation has since worsened.

"Every day, we witness a case of arrest of or physical assault on journalists. It seems the authorities don't want people to know what happened during the election," she said.

"It is a terrible thing when the basic safety of journalists and their ability to access areas where the news is unfolding cannot be guaranteed. The situation is worse in rural areas, where you don't have the same level of exposure and scrutiny of state officers' actions as in the capital."

Police bundle journalists onto a patrol pick-up truck after they were arrested while covering events at Dr Kizza Besigye's home in Kasangati, Wakiso District, recently. The journalists were briefly detained at Kasangati Police Station before being released without charge. PHOTO BY Abubaker Lubowa.

Godfrey Mutabazi, executive director of the regulatory Uganda Communications Commission, said that restrictions on the media were necessary to maintain law and order in the country. In a previous interview, he had defended the closure of several radio stations, saying the ban were aimed at avoiding incitement to violence.

Detention of Dr Besigye

But others say the authorities are waging a crackdown not seen in Uganda for decades.

Journalists attempting to cover the continued detention of Dr Besigye -- whose house arrest has been condemned by many, including the US State Department -- have been routinely arrested, according to the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda.

Last week, two journalists with the privately owned NBS TV were taken into custody outside Dr Besigye's home while covering his latest detention as he attempted to leave his home.Abubaker Muwonge from Chinese state-owned broadcaster CCTV was also arrested and held for several hours after filming the release of a piglet adorned in the bright yellow colours of the ruling party by unknown activists outside State House.

Livingstone Sewanyana, the head of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, a campaign group, called on representatives of the media and state authorities to hold talks to ease the tensions.

He said that lasting reforms, including changes to the regulatory framework to give journalists more freedom, were necessary, but he called on journalists to also "balance rights and responsibilities" in their approach to work.

For many practitioners, however, it is hard to see how they can do their jobs effectively when they feel in constant danger.

"You are always scared when you are in the field," said Mr Lubowa, who was released after being held for a few hours on February 27. "You fear for your life. You can be teargassed, pepper-sprayed, or worse. The police expect us to do our work exactly as they tell us to, which is impossible. The pressure on us is just too high."

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