Ugandan police forces have besieged a number of media houses in Uganda
The ongoing clampdown on media houses in Uganda presents a worrying picture of media freedom in the East African country
On May 21, 2013, Uganda woke up to a day without two of its three English dailies. This comes less than a month since marking the World Press Freedom Day on May 3 under the Global theme: “Safe to Speak: Security Freedom of Expression in All Media.” However, the hope of free press does not resemble reality, at least not to the Independent media in Uganda.
Close to midday on May 20, the police stormed the MonitorPublicationsin search of a letter authored by the head of intelligence services General David Sejusa, commonly known as Tinyefuza.
The managing director of Monitor Publications, Alex Asiimwe said that some 50 armed men in police uniform stormed the company premises at Namuwongo, a Kampala suburb, at noon with a search warrant, blocking all exits and insisting they wanted to conduct a search.
The police claimed to be looking for the document associated with a story about an alleged assassination plot that has been widely covered by all media. The alleged plot had been highlighted as a key issue raised by General Sejusa, the overall coordinator of intelligence services in the country, in his letter to the head of the Internal Security Organisation.
Instead of carrying out the search, the armed men disabled the printing press, computer servers and radio transmission equipment effectively shutting down KFMand Dembe FMradio stations under the Monitor.
Asiimwe believes the intention was to prevent the Monitor from operating, broadcasting and printing its newspapers: “We are horrified by this act, which is a gross disregard of Ugandan law and a violation of the Monitor’s constitutional right. This matter is in court and management has contested the demand by the police for us to disclose the source of the story and the matter is yet to be decided.”
He added: “It is particularly perturbing that the police ordered our operations to shut down under the pretext of carrying out a search. It is unacceptable that our business should be crippled on a dispute which should be settled in court.”
Prior to the siege, three Monitorjournalists including Don Wanyama, Risdel Kasasira and Richard Wanambwa had been interrogated at the Police Criminal Investigations Department for two consecutive days as police demanded that they reveal their source of information. The journalists were being held responsible for the article “Probe assassination claims, says Tinyefuza published on May 7.
Later that afternoon the police also sealed off the Red PepperPublications located 11 kilometers out of Kampala. Tusiime Richard, managing director of Red Pepper described the police’s action as a rare incident which shows that the government is taking this matter of clamping down on the media to another level.
“They came to our office and demanded that we take them to our computers and print out the document that was sent to us by Joseph Luzige General Sejusa’s lawyer. We did not have a problem because it is a public document,” said Tusiime.
“The police has shut us down and declared our premises a scene of crime. We will have to wait to see if we are going to be opened and publish again.”
Government justifies its actions
On May 14 the Uganda Communications Commission issued an official statement in relation to the ongoing coverage of events surrounding General Sejusa, stating that its Content Monitoring Team had deemed reports not to have been professional and impartial.
Mary Karoro Okurut explained that this matter is being taken as a matter of national security and investigations are going on. “The police are acting within the confines of the law. They are under instructions to expedite the process and the situation will get back to normal as soon as the investigations end.”
In what has become a common saying by the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), Karoro reiterated that it is the NRM that restored press freedom in Uganda and will strive to maintain it. However she cautioned the media to keep in mind section 37 of the Penal Code that prohibits publication of information prejudicial to national security.
Police spokesperson, Judith Nabakooba explained that the police received a court order on May 15 to collect the original documents. At a press conference on May 20, Nabakooba stated that they shall continue to occupy and search the two premises until the said documents are retrieved.
Consumers use social website to show support
Vahid Oloro immediately set up a page on Facebook “Re-open monitor services.” He argues that media in Uganda are given a perceived freedom as long as their work plays into the ruling system’s “gimmick of media freedom.” “This isn’t the first time a rape of the Fourth Estate has happened. The only problem with Uganda is that once this passes on and things return to a resemblance of normalcy, everyone will go back to the same old tune of; “there is media freedom in Uganda!” So does it spell doom? Yes it does.”
Oloro is aggrieved that a long line of people will lose out from this closure. The distributor reaches the vendor and during that time a lot has been achieved, he argued.
William Odinga stated that an era is ending and a new one is beginning. “I mean the return to “real” journalism. Monitor, Red Pepper, stand strong! That is the right direction for a country that had lost its path.”
David Rupiny cried “Shame! Shame! Shame! On the government and the police!”
Policy analyst Godber Tumushabe argued that the government-owned newspapers New Vision and Bukedde is the same guy who has closed The Monitor. “By buying the Newvision, you are subsidising the suppression of the media. I have made a personal decision to suspend buying New Vision until The Monitor is back on the street and KFM is on air.”
Tumushabe argues that media freedom is a fundamental human right that cannot be negotiated. Government has a responsibility to secure the right of citizens to the free market place of ideas that come through both independent and state media. And smart governments cannot even attempt to determine the information citizens’ access.”
Journalist Rugyendo Arinaitwe expressed shock that an incident of this nature can happen in a country that allegedly respects freedom of the press. “Intimidation cows people down and consumers are going to miss out on vital information. We cannot be free to write what they think is good for its readership, everything is going down the drain, we should not lie to the people, and there is no freedom of the press in Uganda.”
Human Rights Defenders join the media war
Livingston Sewanyana the executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) together with other civil society organisations pitched camp at the Monitor Publications premises. In a show of solidarity, they sealed their lips with tape to signify the gagging of the media.
Sewanyana argued that police forces could have used more civilised measures such as issuing court summons and seeking information from the source.
“Government is trying to send the message to media users and consumers that anyone who has an independent mind will be dealt with decisively, but it is uncalled for and unwarranted. The media should step up its game and stand for the truth, they should be more vibrant. As the democratic drive meets hard times, it would require bold actors and the media as the vanguard of society should stand firm” he said.
FHRI fears that consumers are now threatened by the trend of events, and one gets a feeling that the state is depriving them of their right to information. “Unless something is done, we shall go back to the older times when the media could only publish clandestinely.”
Coordinator for the Human Rights Network for Journalists, Wokulira Ssebagala concluded that Ugandans are doomed because they will be denied accurate information. “If we can’t write about how much money is being stolen, how many people are dying in health centres, the fact that Ugandans are impoverished, helpless and poor, what else can we write about?’’
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