AUGUST 11, 2005
UPDATED: September 8, 2005
Ugandan authorities shut the prominent independent radio station a day after it aired a talk show about the July helicopter crash that killed southern Sudanese leader John Garang. The action came a day after President Yoweri Museveni threatened to shut down any news outlet that “plays around with regional security.”
The Broadcasting Council suspended KFM by written order, citing the August 10 program hosted by veteran journalist and political commentator Andrew Mwenda. The program featured a discussion on the helicopter crash that killed Garang, and on the president’s comments during a commemoration of the Ugandan crew members who died in the crash. The helicopter, which belonged to Museveni, crashed on July 30 as it was transporting Garang back to Sudan from a meeting with the Ugandan president.
In his speech, Museveni accused local media and Mwenda, in particular, of threatening regional security by reporting on Garang’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, the Ugandan army, and other regional issues. Mwenda is also political editor at The Monitor, an independent daily, and his print reports have drawn the president’s ire.
According to Mwenda, the Broadcasting Council’s order said that his program had violated an article of Ugandan broadcasting law known as the “first schedule of the electronic media act.” The section prohibits reports that “violate public morality or promote a culture of violent ethnic prejudice,” or are “likely to create public insecurity or violence,” said Mwenda, who rejected the accusation.
During the program, Mwenda criticized the president’s threats against local media. The guests on the program included a presidential advisor as well as a former military official and an opposition member of parliament, Mwenda said.
Ugandan officials threatened punitive action against news media speculating on the reasons behind the helicopter crash, according to news reports. Museveni himself has repeatedly and publicly raised concerns that the crash may not have been an accident, contradicting statements by the U.N. and other observers.
James Nangwala, a lawyer for Monitor Publications, which owns KFM and The Monitor, told CPJ that there was “nothing justifiable” in the action taken against KFM. He said that the law cited by the council does not give it power to shut down the station. On August 18, KFM was allowed back on-air after paying a fine of 4.95 million Ugandan shillings (US$2,700) for allegedly violating minimum broadcast standards, according to the station’s managing director. However, the ban was lifted only after the state pressed charges of sedition against Mwenda.
The fine was officially termed payment of “costs” to the Broadcasting Council for a nine-page ruling, which contained conditions and non-binding advice for the reopening of the station. Binding conditions included the fine and the implementation of new, KFM internal guidelines for the Andrew Mwenda Live show, according to the station’s managing director Conrad Nkutu.
“The ruling reflected the best we could get out of difficult negotiations,” Nkutu told CPJ today. “We were able to avoid the loss of the Andrew Mwenda Live talk show and the forced issuance of an incriminating apology. We didn’t compromise any journalistic principles. We are happy to be back on air, but we feel that the environment is hostile to press freedom.”