CPJ condemns arrests of Ugandan journalists

New York, April 28, 2008—A story on claims of torture at alleged secret government-run detention centers led authorities in Uganda to arrest three top journalists and seize materials and documents on Saturday, according to local journalists and news reports.

The journalists, including top political journalist Andrew Mwenda, are free on bail in the capital, Kampala, and have not been formally charged. They have been accused of “possessing seditious materials” and “publishing inflammatory materials,” according to their lawyer.

Police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba today told CPJ that police said they had “found seditious materials” after raiding Mwenda’s home and the offices of his bimonthly news magazine, The Independent, on Saturday morning. Officers carted away three computers, including Mwenda’s personal laptop, dozens of CDs, and memory sticks, before arresting Mwenda and the paper’s consulting editor, Odobo Bichachi, and journalist John Njoroge, according to defense lawyer Bob Kasango.

“We are concerned by this raid against The Independent and Andrew Mwenda,” said CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “Ugandan authorities have a history of prosecuting Mwenda based on his critical journalism. We call on the authorities to restore all equipment and possessions seized from the journalists and the newspaper immediately.”

Officers linked the arrests and raid to two stories published in this week’s edition of the Independent that were critical of the government, according to Kasango. One story features an interview with an army deserter who discussed claims of secret detentions and torture by Ugandan military intelligence, and implicated top officials in atrocities during Uganda’s civil war, according to CPJ research. The Ugandan army has been fighting against the separatist Christian guerilla group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, in the north of the country since 1987. The other article is an editorial suggesting unrest in the army ranks following the imprisonment of the former army chief on a corruption conviction.

Photojournalist Joseph Kiggundu of the leading independent Sunday Monitor, based in Kampala, who was at the newspaper’s offices during the raid, told CPJ he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and pushed into a car by plainclothes security agents who seized his camera. Bichachi was also picked up in the raid.

Mwenda was arrested at gunpoint around 9:30 a.m. by plainclothes security agents while driving to the studios of private Capital FM radio station, where he participates in a popular weekly political talk show, he told CPJ.

Mwenda, Bichachi, and Kasango were released on bail later that day.

Investigations were ongoing and the journalists were expected to report to the police’s Criminal Investigations Department on Tuesday, according to police spokeswoman Nabakooba. She said the police will prosecute the journalists on sedition and criminal defamation grounds.

Mwenda is currently fighting a total of 15 counts of “sedition” and “promoting sectarianism” in relation to his journalism since August 2005, according to Kasango. Most of the charges are linked to commentary aired on Mwenda’s former political radio talk show, “Tonight with Andrew Mwenda Live,” on private station KFM. If convicted, Mwenda could spend up to 75 years in jail, Kasango said.

Mwenda launched The Independent in December 2007, despite alleged government efforts to stop publication.