Attacks on the Press 2001: Uganda

Despite a stiff challenge from his former protégé Kiiza Besigye, President Yoweri Museveni was reelected in March, fifteen years after he pioneered Uganda’s controversial “no party” political system.

During the heated election campaign, there were allegations that the president’s office had tried to “vet” articles and columns in New Vision, a government daily. The paper denied the charge, although one of its writers stopped his column for the duration of the campaign, citing interference.

Uganda’s independent press is healthy and operates largely unfettered. With more than 30 private stations in operation and another 100 applicant broadcasters granted licenses, Uganda now has the largest number of radio stations in East Africa. The country boasts the region’s first community radio station run by women. Radio stations played an important role in the elections, airing regular call-in and talk shows with the candidates.

The state radio network was noted for its generally fair and balanced political coverage. Though limited by low literacy rates, print media also covered the elections actively. The pages of Uganda’s two leading newspapers, New Vision and the independent Monitor, were filled with incisive political debates. In October, the Monitor launched Ngoma, a new Luganda-language paper, to compete with New Vision‘s Luganda-language Bukedde. New Vision also publishes three other papers in local languages: Orumuri (Runyankole), Rupiny (Luo), and Etop (Ateso).

In August, the government promised to repeal the unpopular Press and Journalists Statute of 1995 and the Electronic Media Statute of 1996, and replace them with the 2001 Media Bill, a promise still unfulfilled at year’s end. The 1995 statute, which established the Media Council and the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda (NIJU), requires every news professional to have a university degree in journalism.

Ugandan journalists have asked that the NIJU be scrapped and its functions transferred to an independent, non-statutory body. But the draft legislation, still awaiting parliamentary debate, sets up a new Media Commission empowered to censor publications of “pornographic matters and obscene materials,” neither of which is clearly defined in the bill.

Arguments about pornography have been a national fixture due to the popularity of so-called leisure publications. In October, the editor, deputy editor, and ten other staff members of the tabloid newspaper Red Pepper were charged with “trafficking in obscene publications” after the tabloid ran a picture of teenagers apparently having sex on the beach during a school outing. The picture caused considerable outrage among the public, with religious groups and even some journalists calling for more oversight of the media.

The issue of media registration, long a bone of contention, surfaced again when the Media Council was unable to identify the owners of The Message, a weekly whose editors and staff vanished after being sued for defamation by the Ugandan YMCA.

In June, the National Association of Broadcasters lobbied parliament to reduce annual license fees for radio and television stations. Journalists argued that relief was warranted because private media outlets already pay a 17 percent value-added tax on advertising revenues. Additionally, private radio stations pay the Ugandan Communications Commission an annual fee of 1 million Ugandan shillings (US$570) while television stations pay 6.5 million shillings (US$3,710). In addition, the Media Council charges news outlets 600,000 shillings (US$342) each time it hears a case against them. Parliament agreed to put a hold on these levies, pending further consultations.

Heightened security concerns in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington led the presidential press office to ban all videos, still cameras and tape recorders from presidential functions. In late September, Parliament started debate on a controversial Suppression of Terrorism Bill that included dangerously vague definitions of “terrorist” and “terrorism.” The bill would also allow the government to monitor any suspect’s communications, including letters, phone calls and e-mails. The possible implications for Ugandan journalists, who routinely cover rebel groups that the government describes as “terrorists,” are as yet unclear.

June 15

Amlan Tumusime, Radio Hoima FM

Tumusime, deputy news editor for Radio Hoima FM, was assaulted by Matayo Kyaligonza, a parliamentary candidate in the constituency of Buhaguzi, Hoima District. The assault was meant to preempt the broadcast of a critical news report about Kyaligonza.

The report concerned the disruption of a rally held in the village of Kirisha for Kyaligonza’s political opponent, Tom Kyabulwenda. A group of soldiers who backed Kyaligonza, led by a Lieutenant Colonel Kaganda, allegedly dispersed the crowd in the presence of police officers.

As Tumusime was about to air the report, Kyaligonza and a group of soldiers entered the studio office and warned him not to broadcast the story. When Tumusime refused, Kyaligonza struck him in the head and chest. Sources in Kampala say that Tumusime was later taken to a private clinic and treated for his injuries.

According to the independent Monitor newspaper, Kyaligonza claimed that he was not in Hoima District on Friday. But police reports confirmed both the disruption of the rally and the assault on Tumusime.

The government-owned daily The New Vision reported that Kyaligonza, who is the current Buhaguzi MP and a former army brigadier, is known for his short fuse. Last March, The New Vision reported that he assaulted Dr. Christine Mwebesa, the MP for Kabale, on the floor of Parliament when she disagreed with his position on the election of district women representatives.

Mwebesa apparently fought back, and the two exchanged blows for two minutes. Later, both MPs claimed that the argument amounted only to name-calling and finger-pointing.

September 27

Dr. Abdul Ndifuna, Thriller publications

Ndifuna, director of Thriller Publications Limited, was arrested in Kampala and charged with trafficking obscene publications. Ndifuna denied the charges and was released on a 150,000 shilling bond (US$86), with a 300,000 shilling surety (US$172).

The Buganda Road Court prosecutor, Rachael Wandeka, said Ndifuna’s publication, Thriller, had published pornographic pictures and writings on several occasions, thus allegedly corrupting the morals of the country. Ndifuna pleaded guilty to the charges and voluntarily closed the publication.

October 2

Red Pepper
Richard Tusiime, Red Pepper
James Mujuni, Red Pepper
Martin Mpoya, Red Pepper
John Musinguzi, Red Pepper
Herbert Mwesigwa, Red Pepper
Irene Kiconco, Red Pepper
Fatuma Nakaiza, Red Pepper
Maureen Karamagi, Red Pepper
Carol Tushabe, Red Pepper
Arinaitwe Rugyendo, Red Pepper
Amon Turyamubona, Red Pepper

Police raided the offices of the Kampala-based tabloid newspaper Red Pepper and held editor Tusiime and eight other staff members for questioning. Staff writers Musinguzi and Mwesigwa and student interns Kiconco, Nakaiza, Karamagi, and Tushabe were questioned and released.

Tusiime, business manager Mujuni, and circulation manager Mpoya were taken to the Buganda Road Court and charged with six counts of “publishing, possessing and trafficking obscene material for trade purposes with intent to corrupt public morals.” The charges carry a maximum two year sentence.

Police and Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers also confiscated photographs and 24 back copies of the publication.

The charges stemmed from the magazine’s September 21 cover, which caused considerable public outrage by featuring a photograph of teenagers apparently having sexual intercourse on a beach during a school outing.

Tusiime, Mujuni, and Mpoya were released on separate cash bails of 250,000 shillings (US$143) and separate noncash bonds of 2 million shillings (US$1,142). They were also required to report to CID headquarters every week until their court hearing on November 16.

On October 20, police arrested Red Pepper deputy editor Rugyendo and photographer Turyamubona on the same charges. They were released on a bond of 250,000 shillings(US$143), with a noncash bail of 200,000 shillings (US$114).

At the November 16 hearing, the prosecution said it had not completed its investigations. The case was rescheduled for February 20. Meanwhile, Red Pepper continued to appear on newsstands.

At a court hearing on Friday, December 14, Tusiime was rearrested on new obscenity charges in connection with other provocative photographs Red Pepper had run in subsequent issues. He spent the weekend in jail. The new charges were also scheduled to be heard on February 20.

Red Pepper was launched in June 2001 as a political magazine. However, the publication gradually incorporated more salacious fare.

October 8

New Vision

During the morning of October 8, hundreds of students attacked and vandalized the Mbarara bureau offices of the government-owned daily New Vision and its sister Runyankole-language weekly Orumuri.

The students, all from Alliance High School in the southwestern town of Mbarara, were angered by a story in the latest edition of Orumuri titled “200 Students of Alliance Dismissed Because of Pregnancy.”

During the riots, the students attacked news vendors and tore up their copies of New Vision, Orumuri, and Bukedde, a Kampala-based Luganda-language paper affiliated with New Vision, as well as other newspapers.

The students stormed the New Vision and Orumuri offices, shattering windowpanes, damaging office equipment, scattering files, and breaking the windows of a car belonging to the newspapers. The students also tried to storm the studios of Radio West, a private station that had covered the Orumuri story in one of its broadcasts.

Police later dispersed the rioters.