Uganda: Journalists fear prolonged crackdown after disputed election (Committee to Protect Journalists)

| March 7, 2016

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Twenty nine-year-old photographer Abubaker Lubowa was excited when he was assigned to cover Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye’s campaign. But he didn’t anticipate that he would be making the news almost as often as he covered it.

On February 27, Mr. Lubowa and a colleague at the Daily Monitor newspaper were arrested at the opposition leader’s residence in Kampala, where Mr. Besigye had been confined since widely-disputed election results were announced on February 20, extending the 30-year rule of President Yoweri Museveni.

Five days before, a man wielding a can of pepper spray had attacked Mr. Lubowa and another photographer, Isaac Kasamani of the French news agency Agence France-Presse, at the same location. Mr. Kasamani was covered in the stinging spray, but Mr. Lubowa managed to escape injury—just as he did on November 16 when another colleague, Isaac Kugonza, suffered a cracked skull in clashes between protesters and police.

Uganda has long had one of the most vibrant media environments in East Africa, but the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented a series of attacks on journalists covering the political opposition, particularly during elections. During the most recent campaign, radio stations were closed and journalists were beaten or arrested—including one radio host who was pulled off the air in mid-broadcast and detained, along with seven politicians he was interviewing.

Now, local journalists and advocates for press freedom worry that the controversial election may usher in a prolonged period of media repression.

Haruna Kanaabi is the executive secretary of the Independent Media Council, an association of Ugandan media companies. She says, “When you consistently raise questions about the legitimacy of any set of rulers, you inevitably trigger panic in their minds.” She adds: “But the crackdown against the media is ill-advised because journalists are not the ones raising the questions. They are simply conveying the queries that many have raised about the election. They should be allowed to do their jobs.”

International observers have widely criticized the February 18 vote. The European Union concluded that the Electoral Commission lacked “transparency and independence,” and that “state actors were instrumental in creating an intimidating atmosphere.” The Commonwealth team of observers noted the “increased prevalence of money in politics, alleged misuse of state resources, inequitable media coverage, and question marks over the secrecy of the ballot and the competence of the Electoral Commission to manage the [election] process.”

Observers also strongly criticized authorities’ decision to block social media on the day of the election. The Committee to Protect Journalists pointed out that restricting access to platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook made it harder for citizens to report any voting irregularities.

The Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, an independent advocacy group, reported that, between October and February, more than 40 journalists had been detained, beaten, or forced out of work while covering the presidential campaigns. The organization’s legal officer, Diana Nandudu, says the situation has worsened: “Every day, we witness a case of arrest or physical assault of journalists. It seems the authorities don’t want people to know what happened during the election.” Mrs. Nandudu says the situation is worse in rural areas where the level of exposure and scrutiny of state officers’ actions is not the same as in the capital.

Godfrey Mutabazi is the executive director of the Uganda Communications Commission, a regulatory body. He maintains that restrictions against the media were necessary to preserve law and order in the country, and defends the closure of several radio stations, saying the moves were aimed at avoiding incitement to violence.

But others say the authorities are waging a crackdown not seen in Uganda for decades.

The Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda says journalists attempting to cover the continued detention of Mr. Besigye have been routinely arrested.

According to news reports, two journalists with NBS TV were taken into custody outside Mr. Besigye’s home while covering his latest detention.

“You are always scared when you are in the field,” said Mr. Lubowa, who was released after being held for a few hours on February 27. “You fear for your life. You can be tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, or worse. The police expect us to do our work exactly as they tell us to, which is impossible. The pressure on us is just too high.”

To read the full article on which this story is based, After disputed Uganda election, journalists fear prolonged crackdown, go to

Photo credit: @echwalu