Uganda held multiparty presidential elections in February for the first time in President Yoweri Museveni’s 20-year reign, with multiparty district council elections following in March. While Museveni easily won a new five-year term, according to official results, the election was marred by government harassment of the media and the leading presidential opponent, Kizza Besigye. Uganda generally boasts a diverse, sophisticated, and relatively free press, but during the campaign authorities set new restrictions on foreign journalists, expelled a prominent foreign correspondent, harassed radio stations airing opposition views, and pursued criminal charges against several journalists. Self-censorship was widespread, reporters said.
Throughout the campaign, government officials publicly criticized journalists and media outlets, particularly the leading independent newspaper, The Monitor, which they accused of favoring Besigye and his opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party. Besigye was jailed from mid-November 2005 until January 2 on treason, terrorism, and rape charges. Opposition supporters, international observers, and journalists denounced the charges as politically motivated. The charge of terrorism was dropped before the election, and Besigye was acquitted of rape two weeks after the vote. He still faced trial along with 22 co-defendants on treason charges.
Two journalists from the respected Kampala-based Weekly Observer faced charges of “promoting sectarianism” in connection with a 2005 article criticizing the government’s prosecution of Besigye. The article reported FDC allegations that Museveni and a small group of army generals from the president’s ethnic group had coordinated “an operation to keep Besigye in jail.” Editor James Tumusiime and reporter Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda stood by the story. The prosecution was put on hold in June when a constitutional challenge to the law, brought by Monitor Publications in 2005, came before the Supreme Court.
A new body known as the Media Centre was appointed by the government in early January to review foreign journalists’ applications for accreditation during the election campaign. Information Minister James Nsaba Buturo said the step was taken because foreign journalists had become a “security threat,” according to The Monitor and other local sources. Previously accredited journalists were told to re-register with the center.
The new head of the Media Centre, Robert Kabushenga, said that the accreditation of foreign journalists—previously an apolitical process—would be tied to an official evaluation of their work. Canadian freelance journalist Blake Lambert, who had reported from Uganda for more than two years, was denied re-accreditation and was deported on March 9. Lambert had worked for a variety of international media outlets, covering donor nations’ disenchantment with Museveni, the government’s AIDS strategy, and the charges against Besigye. After Lambert was forced to leave, Information Minister Buturo said that “instead of developing the government, which is working in the interest of the people, he wrote stories to make people in other countries believe that Uganda is a bad country.”
At least four times in February and March, security forces interrupted radio programs, detained journalists, and harassed staff. On February 21, police officers stormed the Catholic-owned station Radio Pacis FM in the northwestern town of Ediofe and halted a talk show featuring a high-ranking FDC official, Kassiano Wadri. The police accused the station of broadcasting “abusive language which could incite the public,” a charge the talk show moderator denied. On March 20, police arrested two journalists from Open Gate FM in the eastern city of Mbale, accusing them of “destroying evidence” for failing to turn over a recording of a program in which an opposition member of parliament criticized the election of ruling party members. The journalists, who said that there was no recording because of a technical error, were released on bail.
Days before the March 3 district council elections, police raided the premises of the independent radio station Choice FM in the northern city of Gulu, confiscating audiotapes and detaining the station’s programming manager overnight without charge. Police accused Choice FM of being a security threat because of a talk show in which opposition supporters criticized local military and civilian authorities. Ten days after the vote, police shut down Choice FM on orders from the Uganda Broadcasting Council, a government regulatory body. The council accused the station of operating without a license, which station officials denied. The station reopened in July after paying a fine of 4.95 million Ugandan shillings (US$2,700) and agreeing to personnel restrictions.
There were several reports during the election campaign that authorities had sought to block critical Web sites within the country. A week before the vote, the state-owned daily New Vision and other local media reported that a highly critical U.S.-based site, Radio Katwe, was blocked inside Uganda on the orders of the government-controlled Uganda Communications Commission. On the day of the vote, Monitor Publications said that its radio station, KFM, and the Web site of The Monitor were blocked because they were reporting an independent vote tally that showed Besigye polling closer to Museveni than official results reflected. Information Minister Buturo told CPJ that the government had not blocked The Monitor Web site, but he declined to comment on whether it had jammed KFM’s broadcast.
In August, the elusive Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that has fought the Ugandan military in the north for more than 20 years and was responsible for massive human rights violations in the region, entered direct negotiations with the government for the first time in more than a decade, raising hopes that an end to the insurgency might be near. In the past, Ugandan officials have restricted journalists’ access to regions affected by the LRA, and have accused local reporters who maintained contacts within the LRA of collaborating with the rebels. The negotiations stumbled, though, and there appeared to be no substantial change in journalists’ ability to cover the region.
In October, the editor-in-chief and CEO of New Vision, William Pike, resigned from his position after more than 20 years at the paper. Though New Vision reported that Pike, a British national, left to “explore other business opportunities,” Museveni had made it known that the newspaper had been “useless for a very long time.” The news raised fears that New Vision would take a stronger pro-government slant.