Attacks on the Press 2000: Uganda

IN LATE JUNE, A NATIONAL REFERENDUM REAFFIRMED PUBLIC CONFIDENCE in Uganda’s unique no-party political system. President Yoweri Museveni suspended the activities of political parties in 1986, arguing that the parties, many of which had religious or tribal bases, were the root of the armed conflicts and other problems afflicting Uganda and the rest of Africa.

In the June referendum, Ugandans voted to continue the suspension. Parties still exist but cannot campaign for office, recruit members, or raise funds. Meanwhile, President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement government drew intense criticism for its increasingly intolerant attitude towards the media.

In theory, the Ugandan Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, of the press, and of access to official information. In practice, strict sedition statutes and laws such as the Army Statute, which bars army officers from giving information to journalists, make it difficult to report on important issues without running afoul of the authorities.

As in past years, the government censored, harassed, and brutalized its critics in 2000. On February 16, soldiers in Fort Portal, a town in western Uganda, arrested two journalists from the community radio station Voice of Tooro. The station had angered authorities by airing unfounded rumors of a massacre by rebels from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which has been fighting the Museveni regime in western Uganda. Although the station broadcast a correction within an hour, the public prosecutor charged newscaster Frank Bagonza Kimoone and reporter Joseph Kasimbazi with “sedition and publication of false and alarmist news” before releasing them on bail. The case was ultimately dismissed.

In May, the government ordered all private radio operators to pay an annual licensing fee of approximately US$3200. Station owners were outraged, arguing that since independent media already pay a 17 percent value-added tax on their advertising revenue, the added financial burden would put many stations out of business.

The editor of the daily Monitor, Charles Onyango-Obbo, spent more time in court last year than any other Ugandan journalist. On July 27, lawyers for The Monitor, which provides the only real competition for the state-owned, mass-circulation New Vision, challenged the constitutionality of Section 50 of the Penal Code, under which the newspaper’s editors had been charged with “causing fear and alarm to the public.” Although the newspaper lost the case in a 4-1 decision, the dissenting judge agreed that Section 50 was inconsistent with the Constitution.

Also in July, journalists from state-owned and private media organizations, imposed a news blackout on Parliament to protest harassment and restrictions on press access. (The press boycott was lifted a few days later, after legislators loosened the restrictions.) A month later, journalists launched the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA), which represents all reporters and photographers covering Parliament.

Frank Bagonza Kimoone, Voice of Tooro
Joseph Kasimbazi, Voice of Tooro

Kimoone, a newscaster with the community radio station Voice of Tooro, was arrested by military intelligence officers in Fort Portal, a town in western Uganda. The next day, Voice of Tooro reporter Kasimbazi was arrested when he visited the Muhoti military barracks to inquire about Kimoone’s welfare.

The journalists were held in a small cell with other prisoners, including nine suspected members of the rebel Allied Democratic Force (ADF). They were denied food and water for more than 24 hours. On February 21, they were charged with “sedition and publication of false and alarmist news” and released on US$170 bail apiece.

On October 26, after prosecutors failed to appear at three previous hearings, Chief Magistrate Roy Byaruhanga dismissed the charges against the two journalists, remarking that the state “no longer seemed interested in trying the case.”

The arrests apparently related to Voice of Tooro‘s quickly retracted February 15 report on an alleged massacre at Kijura, a small village near Fort Portal. Kasimbazi heard the report from a Kijura village council leader, and sought to confirm it with Al Faruk Katto, the regional representative of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID). Katto acknowledged having received similar reports from the same source.

At 9 a.m., Kasimbazi filed a report to Kimoone, who read it over the air, stating that “unconfirmed reports from Kijura” alleged the death of three dozen villagers at the hands of rebel forces. An hour later, however, it became clear that no such thing had happened. Voice of Tooro then aired a correction and an apology in English as well as in several local dialects.

After the arrests, Kasimbazi resumed his duties at the station. Kimoone was sacked by the management of Voice of Tooro, who sent copies of his dismissal letter to the police and the army. Kimoone’s dismissal came after police searched his office and found a booklet stating the objectives of the ADF rebels. According to Ugandan journalists contacted by CPJ, however, the booklet was freely available on the Internet.

CPJ protested the harassment of Kasimbazi and Kimoone in an April 3 letter to President Yoweri K. Museveni.