SIRONKO – There is a joke that has been doing around on social media warning parents to prevent their children from watching any program or news bites concerning the Police mouthpiece lest the kids grow up into liars. Such is the perception built over a period of time regarding the press statements made by security organs over a range of issues.
Whereas it may have been a joke, it speaks volumes of what Ugandans think of the press statements by police or even the army in respect of any prevailing situation.
While explaining the chaos that took place at the offices of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Uganda, Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesman Patrick Onyango said that Robert Kyagulanyi was to blame for what befell journalists and NUP supporters when he attempted to deliver his petition with a group of people beyond the recommended numbers. The last time I checked, at least before national campaigns ended, the maximum number of people allowed to gather in groups was 200.
Onyango further attempted to explain that although the police respect the rights of citizens to freely assemble and express themselves, the health and safety of all Ugandans and visitors and rule of law remains their top priority. He added that all unlawful rallies, assemblies, and processions are still restricted under the health protocols in place and while dispersing Kyagulanyi and team, a few people sustained injuries including journalists. I will not be surprised if Enanga comes up to push the beating of journalists to vigilante Ugandans.
The group that I saw on television was far smaller, the numbers only increased with the arrival of the military which appeared dressed for war and with specific orders to act as they did. Onyango only forgot that some of the people who escorted Bobi Wine were relatives of Ugandans who have been kidnapped and have never been seen again or have returned with serious injuries. Onyango was only justifying their use of force against unarmed citizens.
Please don’t judge me wrong because the beating of other Ugandans has been the norm, it does not surprise the rest of us who have been living in Uganda to see opposition politicians being harassed. My emphasis today goes to the men and women who risk their lives day and night to bring us first hand and accurate stories that they have seen with their eyes and heard with their own ears. It’s the reason they go to the field with proper identification, clad in their jackets and armed with nothing but their notebooks, pens, recorders, and cameras only to return on stretchers for doing their work.
By close of business on the 17th day of February 2021, several journalists went back to their duty stations without news but injuries that were inflicted by none other than the men in uniform who should have protected them in the execution of their duty as reporters. All they could report back to us consumers of what they went to collect was blood-stained clothes and wounds.
The injured journalists included Joseph Sabiti, Timothy Murungi, Shamim Nabakooza, Geoffrey Twesigye, Irene Abalo Thomas Kitimbo, John Cliff Wamala, Henry Ssekanjako, Rashida Nakaayi, Josephine Namakumbi among others. Others were freelance journalists.
It is possible for Journalists to sign out from the news room all in the name of going to the field to collect first hand information for onward delivery to the consumers. However, fearing for their lives, they have an option to sit back in the comfort of their offices or restaurants and concoct unverified stories to be broadcast on televisions or radios and fake stories for the print and online media which is certainly unprofessional but who wants to die at work like a dog.
What is the logic in returning with injuries like it was the case on 17th February, 2021, thanks be to the army whose core function under our laws is to defend and protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Uganda. They duty to keep law and order and to protect us with our properties is the duty of Police. What we saw the army do today appears to show that their primary obligation has since changed to stifling civil liberties and freedoms.
Sadly, after justifying their actions, Onyango was not ashamed to assure the public that they had launched inquiries to establish circumstances under which journalists and leaders of the National Unity Platform where beaten in Kololo. Sometimes I wonder what procedure is used to appoint a police month piece. Are they selected based on the expertise in public relations or based on rank and the ability to speak both English and Luganda.. Honestly, after justifying the beating, it goes without saying that a verdict had been pronounced and no amount of investigation would be required change the status in quo.
Many entities including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Uganda, human rights defenders, religious leaders, politicians, Uganda Editors’ Guild and National Association of Broadcasters have condemned the brutality meted against journalists and urged the leadership of security forces to rein in on their officers in ensuring that lives and guards of journalists are secured and protected as they execute their duties. The UN particularly called for an investigation with a view of bringing the perpetrators to justice.
We will recall that Brig Gen Flavia Byekwaso- UPDF spokesperson is one of those who defended the behavior of the men in green uniform saying the group assaulted one of the security personnel at the cutoff point and that required they be pushed back forcefully. What is not clear is whether or not the group included journalists.
In a surprise twist of events, the army is now claiming that seven soldiers who were part of a group that assaulted journalists were charged and convicted for conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline of the Uganda People’s Defense Forces. Immediately, the Chief of Defense Forces Gen. David Muhoozi made an apology to the media and as usual, he undertook to meet medical bills for those affected. Dear CDF, I want to put it to you that journalists don’t work for treatment, they work to provide us with accurate information.
Irrespective of the persons or the reasons for attacking journalists, free and independent journalism in Uganda is under a constant and persistent threat, particularly if their assignment on a given day is to cover opposition activities. The government deploys a wide range of tactics to stifle critical reporting, from confiscating and or destroying their gadgets physical violence to threats by the Uganda Communications commission, harassment, threats of closure by RDCS and security, threats of deregistration, bureaucratic interference, and criminal charges among others which fatally undermine media freedoms necessary for a free and fair reporting.
It appears the Government is afraid of any address by Kyagulanyi which was expected at the handover of the petition on human rights violations. I think what the Government needs to do is to ask journalists to block any independent political reporting until it has defused any threat to Museveni’s next term in office other than resorting to threats, intimidation, and harassment.
Faced with endless fear, some journalists cope by keeping away from any reporting that may attract government attention or sanction or opting for self-censorship, Now that issue to do with Kyagulanyi are serious, many journalists will stay clear of addressing any sensitive political issues that could attract the wrath of security.
Unto you Ofwono Opondo, I know you speak for the Government but I beg you to always think before you respond. Irrespective of the person and the purpose, the beating of Journalists at work by security organs for whatever reason has never been an occupational hazard more so when it is deliberate and intentional. There is always a justification by government whenever there is an attack on journalists. There is need to create a minefield for media owners and reporters who speak or write about issues that the government deems politically sensitive or controversial. Sadly, the law has given so much unchecked authority to the Uganda Communications Commission to regulate the media as they wish. Infact many of the sanctions they levy have been found to be in violation of freedom of expression by international experts.
On 09-09-2009, there were serious riots in Buganda region over the blocking of the Kabaka from visiting Bugerere which were broadcast on radio. It was alleged that some radio stations were inciting violence and promoting the riots. In response, the Broadcasting Council suspended the licenses of three Luganda speaking radio stations all without notice or a prior court order. I recall the Police and soldiers threatening journalists trying to photograph and report on the unfolding events live. This was followed by the Broadcasting Council mounting pressure on media houses to suspend specific journalists who had taken part in live m the Council deemed harmful. The Council officially banned any live broadcasts and open-air broadcasting.
In the after math of the 2011 Presidential and Parliamentary elections, Museveni lashed out at the media for their coverage of opposition protests. In that letter published in the New Vision paper, the President labeled some media houses and of course their journalists as “the enemies of Uganda’s recovery”. The president was also quick to point a finger at Al-Jazeera, the BBC, NTV and Daily Monitor as cheering on those behind the “walk-to-work” campaign. Information Minister-Kabakumba Masiko as she then was told the BBC’s Network Africa programme that laws would be amended to deal with any journalist who became an “enemy of the state”.
Now for the journalists who desire to pick live news from Kyagulanyi with a view of broadcasting the same, I could be wrong to be the real enemies of the state and for that reason, you deserve a beating to restore sanity in the way your conduct yourselves on duty. If I expected a back fore from you journalists, I would have added a disclaimer that the foregoing three lines are a slip of the keyboard and don’t reflect what I think of you.
Rogers Wadada is a writer, a Lawyer, human rights activist, researcher, and politician.