His Excellency President Yoweri Museveni
C/O The Embassy of the Republic of Uganda
5911 16th Street, NW
Via facsimile: (202) 726-1727
The Committee to Protect Journalists is troubled by your government's recent efforts to influence journalists' coverage of Uganda. Government officials have recently said that the accreditation of foreign journalists--previously an apolitical process--is tied to an official evaluation of the journalists' work. This attempt to deter foreign reporters from filing critical reports is particularly troubling in the run-up to the February presidential election, an event deserving of full international attention.
A new body known as the Media Centre was appointed by the government in early January to vet foreign journalists' applications for accreditation. Information Minister James Buturo said the step was taken because foreign journalists had become a "security threat," according to the independent newspaper The Monitor and other local sources. Previously accredited journalists were told to reregister with the center on January 3. Since then, the Media Centre has not issued renewed accreditation to at least one journalist based in the capital, Kampala. A second foreign reporter was able to renew his accreditation for only four months rather than the customary 12.
BBC correspondent Will Ross was told that his accreditation would be renewed for only four months, despite the absence of any previous problems in applying for and receiving authorization. Ross has worked in Uganda for four years and is a respected and independent reporter. He told CPJ that the head of the Media Centre, Robert Kabushenga, told him in a private meeting that the further renewal of his accreditation depended on whether his reports were deemed "fair and balanced."
Freelance journalist Blake Lambert, who has reported from Uganda for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Economist, and other news outlets for more than two years, has not received an official response to his renewal request despite having applied through the Media Centre more than two weeks ago. Lambert is also a frequent panelist and occasional substitute host for veteran journalist and political commentator Andrew Mwenda on the independent radio station KFM.
Lambert was told to bring copies of his articles to a January 16 meeting with Kabushenga., he told CPJ. At the meeting, Kabushenga told him that his application was awaiting a decision from "political authorities," including the Information Ministry.
Under Ugandan law, the accreditation of foreign journalists had fallen under the jurisdiction of the Media Council, a large organization whose board includes legal and media experts. The Kampala-based independent Democracy Monitoring Group has condemned your government's move to transfer this authority to the Media Centre, saying in a statement that "the mandate and functions of the Media Centre remain largely unknown and can therefore be used to undermine the freedom of the press." At least two top Media Centre officials are members of the Ugandan military, local journalists told CPJ. Local journalists said that applying for accreditation has not been a politicized process in the past.
We respectfully remind Your Excellency that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to "seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers."
The accreditation issue arises at a time of other official harassment. Kabushenga told a group of foreign journalists on January 3 that they would not be allowed to travel more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) outside of Kampala without permission from the Media Centre. Information Minister James Buturo has publicly denied the existence of such restrictions, local journalists told CPJ.
CPJ has documented an increase in legal attacks against journalists in recent months. On November 29, we wrote to Your Excellency to express concern about restrictions on media freedom following the controversial November 14 arrest of opposition leader Kizza Besigye. Your government had instructed journalists not to comment on or discuss Besigye's upcoming trials on treason, terrorism, and rape charges.
At least three Ugandan journalists currently face serious criminal charges stemming from their reports for local media on matters of public concern. On December 13, editor James Tumusiime and reporter Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda of the privately owned Weekly Observer were charged with "promoting sectarianism" in a report stating that the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) had accused Your Excellency and three top military officials of persecuting Besigye on ethnic grounds. The two could face up to five years' imprisonment under Uganda's penal code.
In addition, Andrew Mwenda currently faces more than a dozen criminal charges of sedition and "promoting sectarianism" in connection with a talk show broadcast in August on KFM radio, focusing on the helicopter crash that killed southern Sudanese leader John Garang.
As an organization dedicated to defending the rights of journalists worldwide, CPJ respectfully urges Your Excellency to ensure that journalists are able to report and comment on the news in Uganda without fear of reprisals, and that the criminal charges against James Tumusiime, Semujju Ibrahim Nganda, and Andrew Mwenda are dropped immediately. All journalists must be able to cover the coming election freely, regardless of nationality or political orientation.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.