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Human rights day: the perspective from Uganda

Tuesday 4 February 2020 - 8:33am

Kampala | Credit: Emolot

To commemorate Human Rights Day, PEN International and PEN Centres are launching an essay series and holding events on human rights issues across the globe.

In 2013, reporter Peter Kanaakulya was covering a procession of opposition leaders led by Dr. Kizza Besigye and Lord Mayor of Kampala, Erias Lukwago. The procession was intercepted by the police and Kanaakulya was pepper sprayed and beaten. His camera fell and he had to jump out of the car to safety. The police later called the TV station where he worked and asked him to retrieve his camera.

From then, I vowed never to go to Central Police Station again, nor to go back to the field,” he said. He now focuses on administrative and production work for online television station MRU TV. In another incident, the police forced him to delete the footage he had recorded. “I had to delete it so that they wouldn’t hurt me,” he explained. “For a journalist, your weapon is a camera and recorder so that you tell the truth to the public.”

Over the years, the police have continued to harass journalists, even when they wear their press credentials. According to Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda’s Press Freedom Index for 2018, 163 cases of violations and abuses were reported. According to the same Press Freedom Index, the police have been the leading offender of media rights in the past ten years. Of the 163 cases, the police were responsible for 87, representing 53 per cent of all documented cases in 2018.

Journalists will keep away from political situations and they will censor themselves, and then the general public will be denied information,” says Margaret Sentamu-Masagazi, the Executive Director of Uganda Media Women’s Association.

When interviewed for this piece, other specialists concurred. “Journalists are scared to report, yet the public has a right to information,” says Komakech Henry Kilama, a human rights lawyer and legal practitioner.

Journalists are the eyes and ears of the public and if they are unable to cover events then the public will miss out on a lot of information,” says Diana Nandudu, Legal Officer at Human Rights Network of Journalists-Uganda.

Attacks on Journalists and Media Freedom

In February 2018, according to Human Rights Watch, five unidentified men wearing military uniforms, and later identified as agents from the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), apprehended an investigative journalist with the New Vision newspaper. The journalist was released six days later, following a court ruling against the ISO. The journalist had recently published an article linking ISO agents to the death of a Finnish businessman.

In another incident in the same year, two journalists were arrested and beaten by security forces as they reported on a by-election and the shooting of Yasin Kawuma, the driver of Bobi Wine, musician and member of parliament. The journalists were subsequently charged with ‘malicious damage to property and incitement of violence’, and then conditionally released.

Still in 2018, soldiers harassed journalists covering protests, including confiscating and damaging the equipment of a photojournalist who was trying to carry out his work.

In light of the situation above, on World Press Freedom Day 2019, the European Union Delegation, alongside a number of other European missions and the Heads of Mission of Iceland, Japan, Norway, Republic of Korea and United States, issued a joint statement expressing deep concerns over a series of incidents restricting the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in Uganda.

However, attacks against journalists continued throughout the second half of 2019.

In November 2019 the police fired tear gas at a group of journalists who were protesting alleged brutality by police. In the same month, village information officer David Kibuuka was killed by live bullets allegedly fired by the police, while he was covering a protest.

Female journalists who face violence in their professional duties

One incident occurred in 2017, when a TV reporter was kidnapped by two unknown people and beaten, apparently over her coverage of a dispute between outspoken academic, activist and poet Stella Nyanzi and Janet Museveni, who is minister of education and President Yoweri Museveni’s wife. The kidnappers shaved the reporter’s head, beat her and threatened to torture her. Stella Nyanzi herself has just been released from jail after her 18-month prison sentence for alleged cyber harassment of the president on Facebook was overturned by an appeal court. Her original conviction indicates that no space is safe for Ugandans to criticise the authorities.

In another instance, five female journalists were stoned by police officers as they reported on the outbreak of a fire at Katwe Police Station on 24 August 2017.

Harassment of female journalists is of particular concern in that “the impact of violence is greatest on female journalists so they will find other career paths, such as public relations or communications, where they are more comfortable,” says Masagazi of the Uganda Media Women’s Association.

Restrictions on artists

Journalists are not the only ones who face restrictions on their right to freedom of expression; artists also face harassment and censorship. On many occasions, politician and singer Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, has been prevented by the police from performing and arrested for reasons such as making inadequate preparations for his performance.

Additionally, a performance poet is no longer allowed to perform some of his political poems at the National Theatre in Kampala. He continues to write his ‘angry’ poems and perform in different spaces.

A way forward

Police harassment against journalists and others who use their voice to criticise the authorities is rampant, and there are fears that the situation will worsen as the 2021 elections approach.

The public must show its support for media associations and media owners so that together, Ugandans can push for the safety of journalists and artists and for freedom of expression in general. The Government of Uganda must respect and adhere to the provisions of the 1995 Constitution, which provides for freedom of expression.

Beatrice Lamwaka is the Vice President PEN Uganda and board member FEMRITE – Uganda Women Writers Association. Her collection of short stories, Butterfly Dreams and other stories was published a few years ago. Her short story is featured in the acclaimed, New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent (2019). She was awarded by Uganda Registration Service Bureau for her literary contributions in 2018. She is a recipient of the 2011 Young Achievers Award, was shortlisted for the 2015 Morland Writing Scholarship and the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, and was a finalist for the 2009 South African PEN/Studzinski Literary Award. The anthology of short stories, Queer Africa (2013), to which she contributed, won the 26th Lambda Literary Award in 2014.