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Ugandan press finds unexpected ally in judiciary

Police confront Daily Monitor journalist Yusufu Muziransa. (Daily Monitor)

With a medical drip attached to his hand, camped outside police headquarters along Parliamentary Avenue in Uganda' capital, Kampala, William Ntege was determined to get his video cameras back. Police had beaten Ntege, a journalist with the private broadcaster WBS, and damaged two of his cameras as he covered elections last year, according to local reports.  "I am here for my two cameras that were destroyed by the Ugandan police. We are fed up," read a placard Ntege held up to passing police and the public last week before being invited in by the police for negotiations, according to local journalists. 

Ntege was finally compensated for his cameras, but he is still pushing for the officers who assaulted him to be prosecuted. No police officer has been reprimanded this year for any of 14 cases of assault, CPJ research shows. But Ntege's small victory represents one in a series of recent journalist triumphs over police, previously viewed as the archenemy.

In June, Siraje Lubwama, reporter for the private weekly Observer, sued Kampala Metropolitan Traffic Police Commander Lawrence Niwabiine for leading an attack on him and two other journalists while they covered the March release on bail of opposition leader Kizza Besigye, Lubwama said. Police detained Besigye for organizing a protest that lead to the death of Assistant Inspector of Police John Bosco Ariong in Kampala. Lubwama claims the police commander ordered officers to beat and detain him at Kampala's Central Prison, where he also lost some money and a cell phone. Niwabiine refutes the charges, according to local journalists. The reporter is fighting in court to receive compensation, to have the court declare the arrest unlawful, and to have Niwabiine removed from office. "We are giving it a try ... If we don't try then the press will just keep getting harassed by authorities," he told CPJ.

Police cracked down on the press with near total impunity last year during presidential and parliamentary elections and the nationwide "walk to work" protests against rising prices. Few Ugandan journalists covering those restive occasions would have believed that members of the press would fight back a year later. Part of this newfound strength must be attributed to a series of success stories journalists have recently had in the courtroom; with each small victory, more journalists seem to be finding the courage to go to court. "This change of heart is not out of the blue," Geoffrey Ssebaggala, program coordinator for the Ugandan Human Rights Network for Journalists, told me. "Constant pressure and questioning from civil society groups and the opposition since last year's elections over the independence of the judiciary has helped foster this change. The judiciary has been compromised by the executive and is now trying to gain independence." 

A Kampala court summoned the Kampala Central Division Mayor Godfrey Nyakana in June over charges of robbery and assault on Arinaitwe George, journalist for the private daily Red Pepper, George told me. Nyakana is expected to appear in court Thursday, according to local reports. When the public protested over alleged vote rigging during the February 2011 mayoral elections, Nyakana allegedly punched George and grabbed his camera in a bid to stop him from taking photographs of the protest. The electoral commission eventually cancelled the local elections after discovering widespread irregularities, according to local reports. "This case has been pending for a long time," said George, who filed a complaint soon after the incident, "but we are hoping justice will be done since this will encourage journalists here." Repeated phone calls to Nyakana for his response to the charges went unanswered.

Also last month, a court in the central town of Entebbe issued an arrest warrant for two individuals accused of attacking Rebecca Nakame , a reporter for pro-government Bukedde TV, according to local reports. A local police constable ordered a mob to attack Nakame after she attempted to cover a family land wrangle, she told local journalists. A group backing one side of the dispute kicked and slapped Nakame and damaged her camera before a local council official and others managed to save her, she said.

Another small June victory for the press: Magistrate Doreen Ajuna from the central town of Masaka apologized after detaining Bukedde TV reporter Namuwonge Hahifah for entering her courtroom "without permission" earlier in the month, according to local reports.

These cases followed a hard-won court victory in February by Daily Monitor editors Daniel Kalinaki and Henry Ochieng, who had battled forgery charges for more than two years for allegedly altering a 2009 letter by President Yoweri Museveni. The charges were dropped, giving local journalists the sense that Ugandan government authorities do not necessarily pull all the strings in court. Still, when he stepped out of the courtroom in February, Kalinaki was cautious, telling his colleagues that he feared new charges would emerge, according to local reports. As yet, that hasn't happened.

Of course, court victories do not necessarily mean an end to police harassment. "Improvements in police professionalism are the only way we will see improvements for the media," Ssebaggala told me. "The media are often exposing the brutal excesses of the police while handling public events and the police do not like this and react."

The hopes for success in court come as Ugandan police announced a new unit to act as an ombudsman for journalists' complaints, although it remains to be seen whether the unit represents a genuine effort to end attacks on journalists or is simply a public relations stunt. It will exist alongside the police Media Crimes Unit, a division specially designed to monitor Uganda's press. Just today, the Media Crimes Unit called in for questioning Meddie Nsereko, political talk show host at Central Broadcasting Services, about a show he hosted last week in which some panelists opposed the parliamentary candidacy of a ruling party member, according to local journalists and reports.

[Reporting from Nairobi]

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