Police close radio station after critical talk show

New York, March 14, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the closure of an independent radio station in Uganda which aired a show critical of the military and a ruling party candidate in last month’s municipal elections. Police in the northern town of Gulu shuttered Choice FM on Monday, the station’s news editor Sam Lawino told CPJ Tuesday.

Police showed the station a letter from the Ugandan Broadcasting Council, a regulatory body in the capital, Kampala, ordering a suspension of broadcasts. The Council said a program on February 28 was “in violation of the minimum broadcasting standards,” citing a section of the Electronic Media Act that bars programs “likely to cause public insecurity or violence.”

During the February broadcast, ruling party candidate and incumbent in Gulu district, Walter Ochora Odoch, traded barbs with opposition members and opponent Norbert Mao, who went on to win the seat. The opposition candidates harshly criticized local civilian and military authorities for alleged corruption and mistreatment of local residents, according to local journalists. The military has been fighting an insurgency in the north by the Lord’s Resistance Army for more than 20 years.

The Council’s letter also accused Choice FM of operating without a license. However, Lawino said that the station had a receipt from the Council for the renewal of its broadcasting license dated March 3, 2006.

“The closure of Choice FM is nothing but political retaliation for airing a program critical of the ruling party and military,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. “We are alarmed that this and other curtailments of press freedom show that Uganda, a country with a vibrant local press, is moving in a repressive direction. Authorities should lift the suspension on Choice FM immediately,” Cooper added.

After the February broadcast police raided Choice FM and arrested Program Manager Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, holding him overnight without charge. He was released after paying bail. Police have threatened to prosecute Mapenduzi and other journalists at the station.

The shuttering of Choice FM follows another recent attempt by Ugandan authorities to curtail press freedom. On March 9, authorities expelled freelance Canadian journalist Blake Lambert, who had reported from Uganda for over two years. (For more information, see CPJ’s March 9 alert.)