Attacks on the Press 1999: Uganda

President Yoweri Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) made it clear that criticism would not be tolerated in the run-up to a referendum on the Ugandan political system scheduled for June 2000. Using harassment and discriminatory legislation, the NRM government managed to suppress most independent political activity, including meetings and public rallies.

This intolerance extended to the country’s lively and often critical independent press. “Because the hard-line NRM elements think they’ve done well enough to deserve unqualified praise, any criticism must be cracked down upon,” said the independent daily The Monitor in a November article. The Monitor described the period 1998 – 99 as “a never-ending cycle of journalists trudging to the police to make statements, appearing before judges to be charged, going to jail or leaving it. It’s during times like these that many decent people bail out and choose to either do other things or simply shut up.”

The Museveni government’s achievements include universal primary education, economic growth with low inflation, and progress in many areas of human rights, including the formation of a more disciplined army and a credible Human Rights Commission. But the government was thin-skinned about press coverage of armed rebellions in the north and west of Uganda, as well as the country’s involvement in the war in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

In May, three Monitor editors were arrested and eventually tried on sedition charges for publishing the photograph of a naked woman being sexually abused by men in military uniform. Officials insisted that the assailants might be Congolese or Zimbabwean soldiers but could not possibly be Ugandan soldiers as the caption claimed. And in November, three other Monitor journalists were interrogated about an article alleging that the Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was hiding in Uganda.

This last incident prompted about 70 journalists from independent and state media to join a November 12 demonstration against government abuses of press freedom. The demonstrators presented a petition to Parliament in Kampala demanding respect for freedom of expression and the repeal of the sedition law.

May 13
Wafula Oguttu, The Monitor HARASSED
Charles Onyango-Obbo, The Monitor HARASSED
David Ouma Balikow, The Monitor HARASSED

Police arrested editor in chief Oguttu, editor Onyango-Obbo, and news editor Balikow of the independent daily The Monitor at the newspaper’s Kampala office.

The arrest followed the publication in The Monitor‘s May 11 issue of a photograph depicting soldiers holding a nude woman while one of them brandished a pair of scissors near her genital area. According to the caption, the photograph was taken at an army barracks in Gulu, in northern Uganda.

Although one soldier in the photograph was identified and was willing to testify, Deputy Army Commander Brigadier Joram Mugume insisted that the photograph was a fake. Charged with sedition and publication of false news under the Ugandan Penal Code Act, Oguttu, Onyango-Obbo, and Balikow were each released the same day on US$100 bail and US$1,000 surety. Convictions for these charges carry five- and two-year jail sentences, respectively.

The trial of the three journalists opened in a Kampala magistrate’s court on November 9. The state produced three witnesses, all senior army officers from the Gulu barracks. The defense had initially planned to call a 24-year-old woman named Kandida Lakony as a witness because she claimed to be the woman in the photograph. In October, however, Lakony was arrested, charged with supplying false information, and sentenced to one year in prison.

At the November 9 hearing, the magistrate adjourned the Monitor case until December 14 on a technicality. Unknown assailants shot and wounded the journalist’s lawyer, James Nangwala, near his home that same evening.

On December 14, the case was again adjourned, until January 25, 2000, since the defense lawyer was still indisposed after the shooting incident.

November 11
Wafula Oguttu, The Monitor HARASSED
James Tumusiime, The Monitor HARASSED
Siraje Lubwama, The Monitor HARASSED

Editor Oguttu and reporters Tumusiime and Lubwama of the independent daily The Monitor were summoned for questioning by agents of the Criminal Investigation Department in Kampala.

The interrogation followed the November 2 publication of an article on the whereabouts of Jonas Savimbi, the leader of Angola’s UNITA rebel forces. The article was entitled “Savimbi Hiding in Uganda? Kampala denies; UNITA response confusing.” The three journalists were made to sign so-called caution statements acknowledging that they had been “cautioned,” or warned. They were told that they would be charged with “publication of false news that is likely to cause alarm and fear among members of the public” and that they could expect a court summons at any time.