This Statement was originally published on Daily Monitor on 4th/March/2016
Uganda is at political cross-roads due to raw power contestation between re-elected president Yoweri Museveni, who has been president for 30 years, and the Opposition led by Dr Kizza Besigye, a four-time presidential election loser. Like in the past, Dr Besigye has rejected as “sham” the outcome of the February 18, presidential vote whose results the former Independent candidate Amama Mbabazi is challenging at the Supreme Court.
Heavily-armed soldiers have placed the capital, Kampala’s, central business district under a lock down and continue to patrol other urban areas, dissent is criminalised, critical social media posts invite arrests and a more militant police have found a new target to prey on: journalists.
In the past fortnight since the presidential election was held, the Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda (HRNJ-U), estimates that about 20 journalists have been detained, and all released without charge, for covering the police’s handling of Dr Besigye, who stood on the Oppositon Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party ticket.
Ms Remmy Bahati, a Nile Broadcasting Services (NBS) television reporter, has come to symbolise media practitioners caught in the crosshairs following her brutal arrest this week while reporting live events unfolding at Dr Besigye’s home in Kasangati, about 15 kilometre from the city centre.
It was the last of 10-days within which any aggrieved party could challenge the presidential election results, and journalist huddled close to the politician’s residence to establish if he would eventually take the court option.
But police, who effectively placed Dr Besigye under house arrest since the election day, had other ideas. They placed all the journalists on surveillance throughout the day, closely monitoring what they reported, before closing in to brutally arrest those that spurned their orders to vacate the place.
Police officers chased an out-of-breathe Bahati, still giving live updates to the studio, through an open field and cornered and subdued her on the slope of a dirt road. They twisted her arm to the back and her undergarments were exposed when she bent over to a position of less pain.
And the FDC mobilisation secretary Ingrid Turinawe, who raced to the journalists’ aid, like in past incidents involving her, was promptly seized by police and together with Ms Bahati, bundled in the dreaded police van used to haul Dr Besigye between his home and police custody.
They were driven at break-neck speed to Kasangati Police Station, and hauled into the cells, mixing with other criminal suspects.
Narrating her experience in the infamous blue van to fellow journalists shortly after regaining her freedom, Ms Bahati recalls of how she was tightly sandwiched between well-built men and could not wiggle any part of her body until they reached the police station.
In claims we could not independently verify, the journalist said while inside the dreaded van, male officers fondled her breasts and that they even manhandled Ms Turinawe, with her top plucked off and chest left bare.
Both Ugandan and international human rights activists and media freedom defenders have criticised the brutal arrests, one in several that demonstrate unprecedented police aggressiveness against journalists.
Police say journalists covering the state’s placement of Dr Besigye under informal house arrest since the February 18, vote are behaving like “Opposition politicians” and “inciting” the masses. The presence of the media has exposed in real time excessive use of force by police to either arrest Dr Besigye or to prevent visitors from accessing his residence.
After the distasteful arrest of Ms Bahati, which came a day after her colleague was picked up while reporting live from the same venue, police deputy spokesperson Polly Namaye accused the journalists of “obstructing police officers on duty and disobeying their lawful orders”.
The presumed lawful order was for the journalists to disperse so that the public would not be able to watch whatever the Force did to or with Dr Besigye