Nelly Bassily | June 10, 2013
Uganda’s government says that journalists can return to work at one of Uganda’s largest newspapers. There was widespread criticism when police shut down the Daily Monitor for eleven days, declaring their offices “a crime scene” after the newspaper printed a confidential memo allegedly written by a senior Ugandan general. The government had argued that the publication of the army general’s “sensitive” letter compromised national security. A second newspaper, the Red Pepper, was closed for reporting on the allegations.
Police also shut down two radio stations affiliated to The Daily Monitor, Dembe FM and KFM, after the story about a memo written by General David Sejusa. The letter, addressed to the Director General of Uganda’s Internal Security Organisation, cited an alleged plot for the president’s son to succeed him. The Daily Monitor has resisted efforts to forward a copy of Sejusa’s letter to the police, saying it would be contrary to press freedom.
According to the Daily Monitor, the letter said those who opposed the alleged plot risked assassination. General Sejusa is currently abroad and faces arrest if he returns to Uganda. The general believes himself to be at risk of reprisals.
Last week, police assaulted and detained several journalists among a crowd of demonstrators protesting the government’s closure of the independent news outlets.
Police dispersed the protest with batons and tear gas, and beat several television journalists. No serious injuries were reported, though several journalists said their equipment was damaged in the attack.
The police briefly detained three members of the Uganda Human Rights Journalist Network who organized the protest. Geoffrey Ssebaggala is the group’s national coordinator. He said he was released without charge, but two of his colleagues were charged with unlawful assembly and inciting violence.
Staff at the Daily Monitor say police occupied the newspaper’s premises in Kampala for 11 days. Although the offices have been re-opened, some journalists are worried that the Nation Media Group has caved in to government pressure, choosing business concerns over the public interest.
In order to get the police cordon removed from outside their offices, and for the paper and the radio stations to get back to work, the media organization promised to be sensitive to and not publish or air stories that could generate tensions or ethnic hatred, cause insecurity, or disturb law and order.
A statement from the Minister of Internal Affairs, Hilary Onek, said the owners of the Daily Monitor had agreed to “only publish or air stories which are properly sourced, verified and factual.”
Alex Asimwe is the Daily Monitor’s Managing Director. He says the paper has not caved in to government pressure, but that “reason had prevailed.” He added, “I think [the Government’s] reasoning and understanding is that [this issue] touched on national security and they were probably worried that it would create security issues and divisions in the army.”
Press freedom is under threat across East African states. Reporters Without Borders describes the media sectors of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda as only “partly free,” and those of Burundi and Rwanda as “not free.”
Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza approved a new media law which weakens the protection of sources, restricts investigative reporting, and requires all journalists to have a university degree regardless of experience. Reporters Without Borders says the new law marks a “black day for freedom of information in Burundi.”