Ugandan reporters under police harassment

New York, January 7, 2009The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by the ongoing police persecution of two Ugandan journalists. The police’s Media Offences Department has repeatedly interrogated the two over a story critical of the government’s handling of an international security operation against the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army last month, according to a local lawyer and journalists.

The two journalists are facing a potential charge of “publishing information prejudicial to security.” If convicted, the reporters could face up to seven years in prison. They may be formally charged on Thursday, pending a ruling of the director of public prosecutions in the attorney general’s office, according to the journalists’ lawyer.

Senior reporters Angelo Izama and Grace Matsiko of leading independent newspaper The Monitor were questioned for seven hours on Friday and four hours on Monday by officers in the Media Offences Department, according to local news reports. Officers also interrogated Managing Editor Daniel Kalinaki on Friday over Izama and Matsiko’s December 28 story. The article quoted unnamed military sources criticizing President Yoweri Museveni’s conduct of army raids last month to capture or kill rebel leader Joseph Kony. The Ugandan army has been fighting against Kony’s separatist Christian guerilla group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, in the north of the country since 1987.

Police are attempting to charge Izama and Matsiko under Section 37 of Uganda’s Penal Act, which forbids the publication of information likely to expose military tactics, aid the enemy, or disrupt public order, according to Anne Abeja Muhwezi, the lawyer for the Monitor Publications Limited Company.

“The persecution of Angelo Izama and Grace Matsiko is part of a larger pattern of harassment of journalists in Uganda, in which the government attempts to silence critical voices through constant threat of legal action,” said Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “We urge the director of public prosecutions to drop these charges immediately.”

Ugandan authorities have for years used a battery of vague criminal charges, including “promoting sectarianism,” “inciting violence,” and sedition, to silence independent journalists in response to critical political coverage, according to CPJ research. The Supreme Court has suspended the use of the sectarianism and sedition offenses pending the outcome of a constitutional challenge filed by leading political editor Andrew Mwenda of The Independent, who was a 2008 CPJ International Press Freedom awardee, according to legal experts. Mwenda faces 21 separate criminal charges related to his critical coverage of government affairs.

Criminal charges or the threat of prosecution currently hang over Mwenda, the Independent‘s editor-in-chief, Charles Bichachi; Monitor editors Joachim Buwembo, Robert Mukasa, Bernard Tabaire, and reporter Emmanuel Gyezaho; The Weekly Observer‘s political editor Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda; and Meddie Nsereko of the Central Broadcasting Service.