Attacks on the Press 2003: Uganda

In March 2003, President Yoweri Museveni proposed extending presidential term limits, allowing him to run for a third five-year term in office. Museveni, who came to power in a 1986 coup, retained power in the country’s first presidential election in 1996 and was re-elected in 2001. His proposal for a third term drew criticism from many sectors of Ugandan society, including some of Museveni’s own ministers. The president also suggested that a 17-year ban on multiparty politics could be lifted, subject to a referendum. Press reports and political commentators speculated that the president could be trying to secure a compromise by allowing multiparty politics in return for a third term.

The debate over the presidential term affected government relations with the media. When The Monitor, Uganda’s largest independent newspaper, reported in November that a Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) had rejected a Cabinet proposal to lift the two-term limit on the presidency, the government sought a court injunction banning the paper from publishing details of the leaked report. Granting this injunction on December 8, the judge ruled that The Monitor should wait for the CRC to submit its final report to the government before publishing its details.

Since coming to power in 1986, Museveni has introduced political and economic reforms that have done much to set the country on the road to stability and development. His reforms include liberalization of the media, and Uganda now has a competitive broadcast sector with more than 100 licensed radio stations. In the written press, even the state-owned New Vision newspaper runs articles critical of the government.

However, Museveni has failed to end the war in the north of the country, where the Ugandan army has been fighting the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) since 1988. The conflict has left hundreds of thousands of people dead, maimed, and displaced, including children, whom the rebels frequently abduct and use as soldiers and sex slaves. In 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush included Uganda in his five-nation Africa tour, which was hailed as a sign of close relations between the two countries, particularly in the context of the “war on terror.” The United States classifies the LRA as a terror group.

Although Uganda enjoys a relatively liberal media climate, journalists say authorities have shown an increased tendency to harass the media when they become too critical or tackle sensitive subjects, such as Uganda’s involvement in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), possible reform of Uganda’s “no party” political system, government corruption, and, especially, the war in the north.

For example, in June 2003, authorities closed the Catholic church-owned Radio Kyoga Veritas in Soroti, northeastern Uganda, for more than two months after the station broadcast interviews with people fleeing LRA attacks. Station manager Father Athanasius Mubiru told CPJ that authorities were particularly angered by interviews with people who had been abducted and subsequently released by the LRA. Mubiru said his station was accused of subversion and of promoting the rebel cause because the interviewees said they had not been mistreated. Mubiru said he believed that the station had been allowed to reopen because of domestic and international pressure on the government.

In May, three journalists from The Monitor went on trial for allegedly publishing false news and information prejudicial to national security. The charges stem from articles the paper ran in 2002 alleging that the LRA had shot down an army helicopter. In response, police raided The Monitor‘s offices, seized equipment, and closed the paper for one week in October 2002. When the paper reappeared, it carried an apology to the government. At year’s end, the trial was ongoing. The journalists could face jail sentences of two to five years, according to sources at The Monitor.

Journalists complain that the government uses outdated, colonial-era laws to silence the press on sensitive subjects. They argue that legal provisions on sedition, criminal defamation, and publishing false news violate the 1995 constitution. An antiterrorism law enacted in 2002 imposes the death sentence for journalists who air or publish information deemed to promote terrorism. Local press freedom activists say the definition of terrorism is too vague, and that the law is designed to stop journalists from reporting on the war in the north. The law makes it a criminal offense for journalists to interview people the government considers to be terrorists. On a positive note, the government is working on a freedom of information law that would allow the media access to official government information.

Nabusayi Linda Wamboka, president of the National Institute of Journalists in Uganda, told CPJ that the main problem facing the press was “working under insecure conditions,” including threats of persecution and beatings, especially when dealing with politically sensitive issues. For example, in October, police beat and briefly detained three journalists from New Vision newspaper who were trying to photograph riot police at a peaceful strike by female textile workers in the capital, Kampala. The journalists were released after a police spokesman intervened on their behalf.

At the end of 2003, no charges had yet been brought in connection with the killing of journalism student Jimmy Higenyi, who was shot by police in January 2002 while covering a banned opposition rally. According to local journalists, a police officer was arrested at the time but then released.

Radio remains the most effective medium for reaching Ugandans. Of the more than 100 licensed radio stations, about half were operating at the end of 2003. Most local radio stations are commercial, community, or religious based. The BBC and Radio France Internationale both have FM relays in Kampala.

FM broadcasters initially vowed to ignore a 2002 ban on talk shows, or ekimeeza (table talk), but local observers said they have stopped airing them. Ekimeeza involved broadcasting from a public place, such as a bar or restaurant, where ordinary people could gather and participate in discussions. In introducing the ban, authorities said that broadcast licenses did not extend to bars. Local observers said FM stations have replaced ekimeeza with phone-in shows. Some journalists said they believed that the government wanted to stop ekimeeza because the shows had become popular forums for expressing political views and criticizing authorities. However, one journalist claimed that the authorities only wanted to prevent drunkenness on air, and another said he believed ekimeeza sometimes “went overboard.”