Ugandan radio station ordered closed after show on helicopter crash

New York, August 11, 2005—Ugandan authorities shut a prominent independent radio station today after it aired a talk show about the July helicopter crash that killed southern Sudanese leader John Garang, according to local sources. The suspension 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 at 4 p.m. local time, according to local sources, citing last night’s program hosted by veteran journalist and political commentator Andrew Mwenda. The program featured a discussion on the helicopter crash that killed southern Sudanese leader John Garang, and on the president’s comments during Wednesday’s 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.

The president said that Mwenda was “writing about Rwanda, writing about Sudan, writing about the UPDF [Uganda People’s Defense Forces],” and added, “he must stop completely,” according to a transcript provided by BBC Monitoring. According to an article in The Monitor, the remarks drew cheers from government and army officers in attendance.

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 have recently 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. KFM will challenge the council’s action in court, he said.

“Andrew Mwenda was merely doing his job by contributing to a debate about matters of public concern, and it is outrageous that authorities have chosen to respond by censoring his media outlet,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We call on the government to ensure that KFM is allowed to reopen immediately and unconditionally, and that all journalists in Uganda are able to comment on the news without fear of official retribution.”