Uganda continues to congregate laws that undermine the enjoyment of media freedom and freedom of expression. Its media legal regime is restrictive in spite of her constitutional guarantees to freedom of the press and being a state party and signatory to international treaties and conventions.
The State authority responsible for electronic media and telecommunications regulations, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), is not independent. The Uganda Communications Act, 2013 gives the Minister extensive and unspecified powers with the potential to impede its operations.
The Public Order Management Act, 2013 (POMA) continued to be invoked by the State machinery in contravention of various Articles of the Constitution of Uganda that guarantee freedom of speech and expression; assembly and peaceful demonstration. In 2015 over hundred journalists fell victim of police brutality and others incapacitated as it quelled and dispersed peaceful demonstrations and assemblies.
Media gagging continues to reign through the draconian provisions of sectarianism, defamation under the Penal Code Act, and the Press and Journalist Act (2000) all of which have restraining provisions.
The Official Secrets Act of 1964 continues to inhibit transparency and accountability and renders the Access to Information Act (2005) impractical. The Anti-Terrorism Act (2002) and the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act (2010) remain in force with lethal provisions that put at risk sources of journalists in the name of fighting terrorism.
Sources of violations and abuses of Journalists rights 2015
A total of 143 cases were documented by HRNJ-Uganda in the year 2015. For accountability and justice to reign, the sources of these violations and abuses against journalists must be known -either as individual officers or government entities in general.
Uganda Police Force topped the list of perpetrators in the year 2015 with 107 cases (75%), followed by the community/ private individuals with 25 cases (17%), the RDCs came in third position with 5 cases (3%), while the media houses (Employers) came 4th with three cases (2%).
The other perpetrators included the Uganda Prisons Services, Uganda People’s Defence Forces and private security guards with one case against each of them respectively (1%).
Police brutality against journalists
The Uganda Police Force remains the principal violator of media freedoms and rights of journalists in Uganda. The 107 cases committed by police in 2015 as compared to 40 in 2014 represented an increment in police violations by over 100%.
The violations include assault, inhumane treatment, detention and release without charge. Journalists were brutally assaulted, their cameras confiscated and arrested for taking photos of police using extreme force on suspects especially during public meetings and demonstrations. A WBS TV reporter, Andrew Lwanga, was brutally assaulted and incapacitated by a senior police officer Joram Mwesigye, the former DPC of Old Kampala Police division, while three journalists on duty were shot and wounded in Jinja, Mityana and Wakaliga in Kampala. Although most of the violent attacks by police were dismissed by the police leadership as mere actions of individual officers, no effective investigations were carried out to punish the said perpetrators.
The police also dubbed the media as oppositional leaning and as thus deserving what they were getting. In October 2015, the Inspector General of Police Gen. Kale Kayihura warned journalists of dire consequences for giving live coverage to opposition politicians. He said that police would crack down on journalists who he accused of turning into political activists by giving live coverage to political opposition events.
Attacks by individuals and communities
Members of the public took second position in curtailing journalists from undertaking their duties. Twenty five (25) cases were registered from different regions and investigated by HRNJ-Uganda. This figure was similar to that of 2014. Journalists were targeted by individuals and groups more especially during demonstrations. The findings further highlight the need to sensitize the public on the role of the media and journalists in entrenchment of democracy. Most of the victim journalists in this group were believed not to be independent actors.
Harassment by Resident District Commissioners (RDCs)
The RDCs continue to harass journalists and media owners particularly on matters concerning the President and governance. Journalists were arrested and detained on their orders for being critical of the President or Presidential initiatives. Such cases exhibited lack of tolerance for divergent speech that is central in a democratic society that Uganda aspires to be. HRNJ-Uganda documented five (5) cases of this nature from across the country.
Employers as violators
Self-censorship increased among journalists working for media houses owned by politicians or businessmen affiliated more particularly to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. Journalists hosting programs on governance issues fell victim of witch-hunt and summary dismissal for hosting political opposition leaders or their sympathizers.
A journalist working for an NRM leaning media house had one choice to undertake; ‘over-coverage’ of what the owner deemed right and maintain a minimal or complete news blackout for opposition political issues. Journalists were turned into mouthpieces of the ruling party which compromised their professional ethical values. The Uganda Communications Commission remained tight lipped on the matter in spite its responsibility to ensure that the airwaves are used responsibly by the owners.
The other perpetrators including the Uganda Prisons Services, Uganda People’s Defence Forces and private security guards are believed to have improved as compared to other players above. We wish to encourage them to do better. Notably, UPDF saved two journalists working for the Red Pepper and TV West in Mbarara Rwizi who were being beaten by NRM flag bearer contestants led by one Charles Ngabirano
Break into HRNJ-Uganda offices
Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda’s (HRNJ-Uganda) offices were broken into on 29th June 2015 by unknown persons. Desktop computers, a laptop, documents-and unspecified amount of money was taken. The break in marked the second time in a period of 24 months that the offices of HRNJ-Uganda have been broken into, with numerous foiled attempts by the security guards. The guard of the day is still on the run having left the gun behind and disappeared. This matter was reported to police but no interest was exhibited to investigate the matter. The break in put HRNJ-Uganda in a precarious situation, disorganized it from defending the rights of journalists in light of the shrinking space.
Mysterious death of Journalist
A 23-year old, Scovia Anena, of Favor FM, in Gulu district was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Her decomposing body was discovered on Monday 15th June, 2015 lying in clotted blood in her house, at Kolo quarters in Layibi Division, Gulu Municipality in Northern Uganda. Anena was pregnant. By the end of 2015, there was no known conclusive investigation carried out by police.
Several journalists died in the past years under similar circumstances with no conclusive investigations conducted by the police.
Of the 143 cases, 116 were committed against male journalists while 27 against female practitioners. The situation was worse compared to 2014 where 98 were male and 26 female. With the 143 cases document within a period of one year, it makes it the worst year for the media in the last six years since HRNJ-Uganda started monitoring the media operating environment and producing Press Freedom Index Reports.
Geographical distribution of cases
Kampala district witnessed the highest number of case with 99, followed by Gulu with 8, Jinja in 3rd with 7 and Wakiso came 4th with 3 cases. Lwengo, Mbarara and Mukono witnessed 2 cases each. Other districts that had cases, witnessed a single case each.
Summation of 2015
The struggle for media freedom in Uganda is far from over. The media still operates in a very prohibitive and restricted environment. The room for free, critical and independent media is faced with enormous challenges. Journalists covering political events mainly by the opposition were more at risk as they were mostly targeted by the police and politicians or their supporters, more so from the ruling NRM party.
The police was hesitant to take up investigation into most of the cases as they were politically motivated. To this end police exhibited a high degree of bias in favour of the ruling party.
The journalists exhibited a high degree of solidarity whenever a member of the media fraternity fell victim of abuse.
There needs to be more engagement of the security forces especially the police, politicians, communities on the central role played by the media so as to minimize misconception based incidents against the practitioners
We call upon the media owners and employers to sympathise with their journalists and stand with them during difficult times, improve their working situations, invest in their capacity building interventions, among others.
Inhibitive and restrictive legislations should be repealed and progressive legislation to promote media freedom and freedom of expression be undertaken.