Uganda: Monitor Journalists Share Their Experiences On Campaign Trail

15 January 2021
opinion

My arrest was the turning point"My arrest on December 30 in Kalangala District proved to me the saying that a dead journalist cannot tell a story. It was sad seeing my story being told by someone else even after I had followed up the details for more than 11 hours. That was my worst experience on the campaign trail with National Unity Platform (NUP) presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine.

I joined the campaign trail after four days in Katakwi District. However, from the onset, it was clear that we were headed for a chaotic tour across the country as Bobi Wine met his supporters.

Teargas and live bullets became the order of the day and for the next 62 days on the campaign trail, we wore bullet-proof vests and helmets.

Our day often started at 6am and if you did not pack a meal or snack for yourself, you would have to wait until after 8pm when you have submitted the story to the editor. I also slept on the road for two nights; at Migyeera Trading Centre in Nakasongola District and in Pader District when security blocked Bobi Wine from accessing any hotel."

Teargas became my daily meal

DAMALI MUKHAYE

"Covering Mr Patrick Amuriat, the presidential candidate of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was a tough assignment. Unlike colleagues who covered President Museveni, those of us covering the Opposition candidate had to contend with teargas on a daily basis.

One day, a picture of me and my colleague Alex Esagala went viral on social media with both our eyes red with tears rolling due to impact of teargas. I got a call from my husband ordering me to return home or get another husband in Northern Uganda. I was torn between choosing my family and my job. It took me two days to convince my family that I was going to be safe.

Feeding and finding accommodation was the hardest on the campaign trail.

Mr Amuriat always campaigned deep in villages where roads were impassable, and sometimes were flooded by water.

I never had lunch for the three weeks I spent on the trail. We could wake up at 6am every day, those who were strategic enough would grab heavy breakfast and that was all we could have for the day.

This was because it was very difficult to find a restaurant or a decent eatery in the villages. We could only have supper at 10pm.

I cannot recall how many times our car got stuck and we had to get out to push . As a result of this tight schedule, I fell sick in Yumbe and did not adequate treatment there.

The situation became worse in Nebbi where we made our next stop. Here I was admitted for a night after being diagnosed with anaemia, bacterial infection and ulcers. Mr Julius Peter Okure, the driver of NTV, our sister media company, became my father during this time. He took care of me, brought me food, and often took me to hospital for my next dose.

The worst moment was when my colleague, Esagala, tested positive for Covid-19. We drove in the same car for two weeks but lucky enough, I and Okure turned out to be negative.

Accommodation was also very tricky. Sometimes we could arrive when all hotels had been booked while the remaining ones were dirty.

Despite the bad side, I gained more experience in my political reporting and visited districts I had never been to."

I contracted Covid-19 on the trail

ALEX ESAGALA

"On a sad note, I contracted Covid-19 after the campaign trail.

We were teargased for the two weeks I covered the Forum for Democratic Change presidential candidate, Mr Patrick Amuriat in Lango, Acholi and West Nile sub-regions. Covering Mr Amuriat was very interesting and dramatic because of his barefoot campaign. He could sit on top of his car while showing swollen legs, and in fact I thought that he was not going to make it up to the end, but he is a very strong man. I came to realise that he is a man of the people, always smiling and at times tough when he is facing it rough with police. What I remember during the trail, we used to have breakfast in the morning and then at around 9pm we could have supper, meaning only one meal per day. In the process, I lost weight.

Mr Amuriat's team was cooperative; whenever police attacked journalists, they could defend us.

My worst moment was when we were heading to Obongi District from Moyo. Along the way, we found a flooded section of the road in a swamp, and most cars could not cross.

Since we were using a small car, we had to jump into a Toyota V8 belonging to Obongi Member of Parliament Kaps Fungaroo in order to access the district where the rally was to take place. However, we arrived in Obongi at 7:30pm past the campaign time.

When Mr Amuriat starting waving at the people in Obongi Town, police started shooting live bullets and teargas.

On a sad note, when I came back home from the trail, I developed cough, flu, high fever, difficulty in breathing, headache, loss of appetite and taste.

Doctors and my colleagues advised me to test for Covid-19. The following day, the results returned and I was positive. This was a very tough time for me but I remained with a positive attitude and was started on treatment. I eventually recovered. But all in all, the campaign trail was a learning experience for me. "

I passed out over inadequate meals

ABUBAKER LUBOWA

"It has been quite tough covering National Unity Platform presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi. I have been living in fear because of what has been happening to our colleagues on the campaign trail.

Personally, my wife was often living in fear; always scared of what would happen to me, especially given that many journalists were targeted by security agencies during campaigns.

For almost all the days on the campaign trail, It was teargas from morning to evening as security agencies sought to block Bobi Wine and his team from campaigning in particular districts.

If you did not have heavy breakfast, you just knew you were to spend a full day on an empty stomach. One day while in Buikwe District, I almost passed out because the sugar levels had gone low due to hunger. I could not buy anything to eat because everywhere we reached, we found military had condoned off the areas, forcing the people to close their shops.

From this moment, we learnt to move with water and biscuits but still, you could not have time to eat. The other thing was the risk of catching Covid-I9. I made it a point to wear a facemask, but whenever they teargased, you had to remove it. People also labelled us partisan and that we were fighting government but this did not stop us from doing our job."

Security lobbed teargas canister in my face

DAVID LUBOWA

"Covering the NUP presidential flag bearer, Mr Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, came with both good and bad moments.

The good moments were that I got first hand exposure to the rough environment that came with the campaigns. I also got chance to travel to various places in the countryside and above all made new friends and bonded with many other journalists.

Then the bad moments set in dominated by arrests and teargas. I still remember the evening of December 6 2020 when security operatives roughed me up in Jinja District as police blocked Bobi Wine from campaigning in the area. I sustained injuries from an explosion of a teargas canister lobbed at us by security operatives.

I eventually ceased to worry about the armed forces because teargas and bullets became the order of the day.

The biggest threat to me was contracting the deadly coronavirus since we mixed with countless crowds all through the campaign trail. The other challenge was accessing food and accommodation.

For some days, we went without food and in most cases spent nights in our cars by the roadside as security agencies blocked Bobi Wine from campaigning or even spending a night in hotels in certain towns.."

It was a change of scenery

MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

"Covering the 2021 presidential campaigns has been an exciting transition from the normal press conferences and workshops in Kampala.

It has been a real experience covering the campaigns of different presidential candidates, including Bobi Wine, Gen Mugisha Muntu of Alliance for National Transformation (ANT), FDC's Patrick Oboi Amuriat and independent candidate John Katumba.

It was on November 9, when I hit the campaign trail of Mr Kyagulanyi. He started with a press conference at the party headquarters in Kamwokya before heading to Arua, where he officially launched his campaigns. He was warmly welcomed by both the supporters and heavy rain, which he braved.

Later, I was assigned to cover Gen Muntu. For all the period I covered his campaign trail, it was peace without security confrontations and violence.

Later, I was assigned to cover Mr Amuriat in West Nile. Mr Amuriat's campaign trail was marked by confrontation with security agencies. One time in Arua District, he abandoned his vehicle and jumped on a boda boda to dodge police officers who wanted to block him from accessing the town.

On November 24, Mr Amuriat suspended campaign activities after two of his supporters died in a car accident at Ganda village, Panyimur Town Council, Pakwach District.

He resumed his campaigns in Kiryandongo District the following day where he was refused to make stopovers at the roadside by police. When he defied the police orders, he was pepper sprayed and his supporters teargassed.

On November 30, the FDC presidential candidate with other party officials were blocked from reaching Kyanika border with Rwanda in Kisoro District. They decided to sit in the middle of the road.

On December 3, Mr Amuriat engaged the police with other security agencies in a cat and mouse race in Mbarara City. The following day, he was arrested and arraigned in court for disobeying lawful orders.

On December 4, presidential candidate Katumba campaigned in Mbarara and was given a coin of Shs500 by one of his supporters and he gracefully accepted it."

A police officer punched me for filming arrest of Amuriat

RACHEAL MABALA

"I was part of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) campaign trail for the last six weeks. It has been eventful with daily doses of teargas, bullets, punches and grenades. Most recently on January 10, I witnessed Mr Elias Twesigye from Mpigi Central Police Station punch Mr Patrick Amuriat in the abdomen. As I filmed the incident, I was punched in the face by another police officer.

I have also witnessed many innocent people getting injured as police and the army sought to block Mr Amuriat's campaign. For instance in Pallisa District, a young girl was peeling sweet potatoes in front of their home when she was hit by a grenade hurled by security agencies. She sustained serious injuries.

In one incident, in Iganga District, Mr Amuriat was blocked by police and military from campaigning at his scheduled venue. I had not experienced teargas in a long time but on this day (December 6), I lost breath as police officers kept firing teargas canisters non stop.

As I looked for an escape route, I looked around and saw a young man aged between 13 and 16 years engulfed in white smoke from the teargas canister. He fell to the ground and dropped his phone. I rushed towards him and gave him water. No sooner had he drank some water than another canister was fired in our direction. My colleague, Juma Kirya of NTV, came to pull me out of the area. Police later ordered the candidate to leave Iganga Town without him speaking to anyone yet he had a crowd of less than 150 people.

As we walked ahead to the venue, we found an NRM candidate, Mr Peter Mugema, aka Panadol', with huge crowds in a procession and being protected by police.

And in all the districts that Mr Amuriat campaigned, he was teargased. I also noticed that many men in civilian attire often commanded the actions against the FDC candidate - they would say; 'let's arrest him, lets teargas him, just pepper spray him' and the men in uniform would follow their orders.

For instance, in Kamwenge District, one man in civilian clothes who stood next to the area police commander kept giving orders to beat Mr Amuriat but the candidate heard him and his security detail arrested him. One time as I captured images of the scuffle between police and the FDC candidate, a man in civilian clothes came and blocked my camera. This was during the time when security officers were openly attacking journalists.

One time, police and the army blocked Mr Amuriat's campaign in Napak District, arguing that the candidate and his supporters at the venue had no facemasks. This was despite the military and police officers having no masks themselves."

I had to present Covid results at each meeting

MISAIRI THEMBO KAHUNGU

"I started off the coverage of candidate Museveni from Gulu when he addressed the first meeting of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) leaders and flag bearers in Acholi Sub-region on November 16.

The next day we travelled to Kitgum where another meeting was held and we would connect to Moroto for the start of campaigns in Karamoja the next day. What was intriguing was how best we could cross to Karamoja from Kitgum, a neighbouring district. The only way was drive back to Lira through a junction at Acholi Burr through a bumpy murram road via Pader District. The road was so bad so that we took more than four hours to make it to Lira. From Lira City, our driver, John Bosco Tumwebaze, would have some relief to drive on tarmac to Soroti and then lead us to Moroto.

Because we joined the NRM camp having returned negative results of a Covid-19 test, each journalist watched the other by ensuring facemasks were won all the time and washing hands with a sanitiser at every given opportunity. You would produce a Covid-19 negative result document at every other venue where Mr Museveni held a meeting.

At each of the venues, standard operating procedures (SOPs) were strictly followed. Local journalists would not be allowed to mix with those from Kampala that were protected as a bubble under the watchful eye of Maj Jimmy Omara, the public relations officer of the Special Forces Command (SFC).

The President usually arrived between 4pm and 5pm save for Mbale when he arrived at around midday, hence catching most of the journalist unawares as they roamed about town to photograph or film the processions of NRM supporters.

Having been elected in since 1996, Mr Museveni this time round did not outrightly campaign by asking for votes through outlining what the manifesto had for every area. This he only did during radio/television addresses.

Instead, the President would give a historical perspective of what makes the NRM different from other political parties.

To me, Mr Museveni's campaigns have been peaceful because of the manner in which the meetings were organised. What was only challenging for me as a journalist was get a new story angle every other day because the message remained the same. You only had to depend on a few jibes he or his party leaders threw at the Opposition candidates. "

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