By Halima Athumani
35- year-old William Ntege is a freelance journalist attached to the privately owned television station Wavah Broadcasting station(WBS). While carrying out his assignments, Ntege has had three cameras damaged and destroyed by the Ugandan police forces. His perseverance has resulted in recognition and compensation from the authorities but his story highlights the difficulties journalists face while covering sensitive stories in Uganda.
In February 2011 during the mayoral election campaigns I was assigned to Nankulabye market place. As I went about filming, I met a plain-clothed security officer. He asked me to identify myself, but I could not since my identity card had just expired and the company was processing new ones.
He then asked me to hand over my camera, which I had strapped around my neck, but because I could not identify him, I declined.
He then called police officers in uniform who helped him to overpower me and take my camera. They lifted me by my trousers and tried to shove me under the chairs of the police patrol car, but I told them what they were doing was wrong, so they let me sit on the chair.
I was whisked off to Old Kampala police station. Inside the corridors, the plain-clothed police officer pounced on me and started boxing me. I was thrown in the cell where I spent the night. The next day I was charged with obstruction, and the following day I was released on police bond.
Meeting the inspector general of Police
A few days later, I went to cover a press conference at the Electoral Commission offices. Here I met the inspector general of the police, Lieutenant General Edward Kalekezi Kayihura, to whom I narrated what had happened. He apologised and promised to get my camera back.
Two months later, after receiving no response from the inspector general I got $1520 and bought another camera. I continued with my work and I also reminded the inspector general of his promise.
Police lift turns troublesome
In 2012 the then president of the Forum for Democratic Change, Dr. Kiiza Besigye made several visits to down town Kampala markets. I was assigned to cover one of the visits and on the way to the market the police intervened and separated the politicians from the crowd.
As I filmed together with another journalist from the Nation Television station (NTV), we got on the back of a police patrol car to get a better view and picture. Before we knew it an angry district police commander charged at us and ordered that we get off, even though the car was already in motion.
We asked him to ask the driver to stop the car so we could jump off, but moving fast on foot, he pulled me hard and I fell down, breaking the camera. A second police officer then dragged me down and I suffered a few injuries to my leg.
Ntege contacts inspector general Kayihura compensation
Ntege then contacted the police chief and told him about the incident. The inspector general was again apologetic and promised to compensate him.
However, the compensation process dragged on for five months, so I visited the headquarters in Kampala to speak to the Kayihura and find out whether I would be compensated or not. I was not able to meet the police chief, but junior officers led by former police and intelligence official, Charles Kataratambi promised to look into my case.
Together with the deputy police spokesperson Vicent Ssekate, they promised to get back to me within one week.
On June 29, 2012 I received a call from police spokesperson, Judith Nabakooba who asked me to go and pick up $2400 for the two cameras. I used the money and added another $900 to buy a modern JVC camera. However, this too was not to last.
The unwanted witness?
On October 4, my editor called me and asked me to cover Dr. Besigye’s escape from his home where he was being held under house arrest. We were informed that he had been arrested and taken to the Central police station. I got there and found a corner where I hid behind some police officers and switched on my camera ready to record. Unfortunately one of them saw me and shouted: “You are not supposed to be up here.” Another officer then pushed me and I fell down and hit my camera.
A scuffle ensued until the Kampala Metropolitan Commander Andrew Felix Kaweesi intervened. He asked me to register the case which I did.
Frustrated, Ntege resorts to metal chains
On January 25, 2013 I went to the police headquarters. With me I carried a chain and padlock. The cement barriers have metal round hooks through which I passed the chain and tied it round my right hand, pressed the padlock and sat on the ground.
I did this because previously when I went to the police offices, I had always been thrown out, so I thought this would work.
One of the police guards reported what I was doing and a few minutes later, the police director in charge of operations, Grace Turyagumanawe approached me. He called for two police patrol cars filled with officers dressed in anti-riot gear with guns, batons and pepper spray led by DPC Ruhweza.
They came with a small saw that was used to cut loose the chain and about six officers carried me to the police car.
They started shoving me under the chair, but I said I was not a dead body. Turyagumanawe then ordered: “Spray him.” One of the officers’ pepper- sprayed my ears, eyes and mouth until I went silent, wriggling with the discomfort.
I was handcuffed and speedily taken to the Central police station where I spent a night. Due to the intensity of the spray, the inmates started coughing and forced me into the showers. I was released on January 26 on police bond and charged with obstructing the police from carrying out their lawful duties.
I called the police chief and told him what had happened. He again apologised and asked to see me later that evening. He was not in his office and sent me a text: “I have left. I will tell my personal assistant to meet you.”
But his personal assistant said he was busy and gave me another return date.
By the 28th, my skin had started peeling off and I was also experiencing abnormal breathing. I sought medical help, however when I went to see a skin specialist at Mulago national referral hospital, the doctor said he would not attend to me unless I produced a police medical report. I again contacted the inspector general.
The next day he sent me a text: “Come to my office now.” He ordered his PA to produce the documents and camera they had as evidence and made it seem like he was helping. However, till this date, I have not received any help.
Journalists share frustrations
Ntege is not alone in his frustration. Photojournalist for the independent newspaper Daily Monitor, Isaac Kasamani says: “The situation is getting worse, we do not get help.” In March 2012 while covering an opposition procession, Kasamani recalls that a police van UP 1928 well known for trailing the opposition leader moved close to him.
“I stood to take a shot and before I knew it, civilian dressed police personnel got out of the van and shot at me, I was only lucky that the bullet missed my head as I bent to take the picture. That is something I shall never forget.”
Minister for Internal Affairs, James Baba, denies Kasamani’s claims and made a statement indicating that no evidence had been found to substantiate claims that a live round had been discharged.
Kasamani says there is no clear way for journalists to protect themselves: “All we have to do is stay together and ensure none of us is alone at such times.”
Mulindwa Mukasa a freelance camera journalist also recalls his experience of the force of the authorities in 2011. He claims he encountered a combined force of police, military, UPDF and other security operatives in plain clothes who fired live bullets to disperse a crowd awaiting the return of the opposition leader form the airport.
“As I filmed the scene, a man in plain clothes came and hit me at the back of my neck and demanded that I hand over my camera. I tried to explain to him that I am a journalist and doing my duty but he didn’t listen. He called two police officers who joined him and they started pulling my camera as I also pulled back.
Another police officer I only identified as Baka from his name tag swiftly moved in and hit me, threatening to shoot at me. He shouted: ‘Give me the camera or else I will shoot you, who do you think you are? I will detain you.’”
Veteran journalist and editor, Joachim Buwembo argues that police fear journalists exposing corruption and wrongdoing. He mentioned events in 2012 when opposition leader Kiiza Besigye was pepper sprayed and activist Ingrid Turinawe’s breasts were squeezed. “Police gets defensive and do not want the public to know what they did so they would rather no camera person is present,” he noted.
“If journalists’ can get embedded, police would like that, but you expose them once and will not get embedded for the second time,” he adds.
Police tops list of torture of journalists
The 2012 Press Freedom Index launched in Kampala on February 6 shows that police still top the list in terms of the torture of journalists.
Source: Doha Centre for Media Freedom