Attacks on the Press in 2008: Uganda

Government security forces intimidated and harassed critical journalists, particularly political commentators on the country’s many popular radio talk shows. Criminal defamation and sedition laws were the main weapons in the government’s legal attacks on the press, although a case pending before the Supreme Court held some promise that the laws might be declared unconstitutional.

The 2002 Suppression of Terrorism Act, adopted after the September 11 attacks on the United States, criminalized news that is “likely to promote terrorism” and set prison penalties of up to 10 years. Under the law, journalists are compelled to reveal sources in court, and police do not need warrants to seize journalistic material. The law effectively blocked journalists from “arranging interviews with people whom the government considers to be terrorists—an activity essential to journalistic coverage of many conflicts within the state,” said veteran journalist Andrew Mwenda, founder of the private bimonthly newsmagazine The Independent and recipient of a 2008 CPJ International Press Freedom Award.

The wide-ranging Penal Code Act provided the government with another means to intimidate journalists. Mwenda and the East African Media Institute mounted a constitutional challenge in 2002, arguing that penal code provisions on sedition, sectarianism, and criminal defamation contravene Article 29 of Uganda’s constitution, which guarantees free speech and free press. Although their case was pending in late year, it proved helpful to journalists throughout 2008.

In a number of cases, judges stayed the prosecution of journalists accused under the Penal Code Act until the constitutional challenge was resolved. One prominent case involved the government’s inspector general, Justice Faith Mwonda, who filed a criminal defamation complaint against four Daily Monitor journalists who had raised questions about her salary. The court stayed the case in February, pending the high court ruling.

Journalists made a public case for reform. “Using such archaic and repressive laws, the executive has often trampled upon the rights of journalists,” the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association said in a statement issued on World Press Freedom Day, May 3. “Even while many of the cases have been won in our favor, the end result of police interrogation and detention over stories we publish has been self-censorship, a worse crime.”

President Yoweri Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement took a hard line toward the news media. Museveni, expected to seek a seventh term in 2011, has faced mounting public criticism over his extended reign. “A newspaper has no right to damage our future,” Museveni said in a nationally broadcast address marking the opening of a parliamentary session in June. “You publish one false story, immediately it is on the Internet and all over the world. You have no right.” With 13 intelligence agencies at its disposal, his administration was willing to push back.

In April, the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence raided Mwenda’s house and the offices of The Independent, seizing documents, computers, and dozens of computer disks. Agents detained Mwenda, editor Odobo Bichachi, and reporter John Njoroge after agents found “seditious materials,” police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba told CPJ. The journalists were released on bail, and no official charges were filed in late year. Agents linked the arrests to two stories published in April that were critical of the Ugandan army, the paper’s lawyer, Bob Kasango, told CPJ. The case was stayed in May pending the constitutional challenge, according to the Ugandan Journalists Union.

Uganda’s media landscape was diverse. One state television broadcaster and a handful of private stations reached the 20 percent of the population with televisions, according to Internews, a media training organization. Two major English-language dailies, the privately owned Daily Monitor and the state-owned New Vision, and four vernacular-language papers dominated newsstands. Two independent newspapers, The Weekly Observer and The Independent, emerged as critical publications.

But radio was the most popular medium. More than 90 radio stations operated across the country, although only the state Uganda Broadcasting Corporation and the private Star FM were heard nationally. Most private FM stations were owned by government supporters or people affiliated with the government, according to a 2008 study by the East African Media Institute.

Still, government officials were sensitive to political commentary on radio talk shows. In October, The Weekly Observer’s Ibrahim Nganda faced a potential eight-year prison sentence for comments he made on a local radio talk show, “Mambo Bado.” Nganda had criticized the government’s unwillingness to provide security during a trip by the traditional leader of the Buganda kingdom, he said. Nganda was charged with sectarianism and incitement to violence for the on-air commentary. Police also questioned Nganda about comments he had made on the “Capital Gang Show” in which he questioned why security officials typically come from the same region as the president.

Also in October, commentator Geoffrey Ssebagala was threatened and roughed up by unidentified men shortly after he made comments on a live talk show on Metro FM about purported torture at army detention centers. Ssebagala, coordinator of the Human Rights Network for Journalists, briefly left the country after the attack.

“People are talking a lot of rubbish on these radios,” the Daily Monitor quoted Museveni as saying at a public appearance in July. “They are very poisonous and this is unacceptable. … They will be stopped.”

Twice during the year, in January and August, police questioned journalists working for the Central Broadcasting Service, a community radio station owned by the Buganda kingdom in central Uganda. The kingdom, an ethnic community, was embroiled in a land dispute with the government that had become a regular talk radio topic.

Government intimidation tactics encouraged self-censorship among many rural radio stations, said Rachel Mutana, editor-in-chief of the Uganda Radio Network, a group of community radio stations. “There is a feeling of powerlessness for many rural stations,” Mutana said. “A radio station [that] operates on $100, $200 a month wouldn’t even think of hiring a lawyer. So when they see a giant like the Monitor being harassed by the state, they cower.”

Life FM, a station based in the rural western town of Fort Portal, did not cower. Beginning in January and continuing for three months, authorities barred broadcasts of the station’s two political programs, “Tweraneho” (Let’s Fight for Ourselves) and “Ensonga Ha Nsonga” (Reason Upon Reason). Regional Police Commander Martin Abil also ordered the detention of the moderator and five panelists for two days, Station Manager Patrick Nyakahuma told CPJ. Police claimed the programs encouraged violence against a local member of parliament, according to defense lawyer Musana Johnson. The station challenged the ban in court and won a victory in March when a judge found that police had acted outside the constitution and media laws.

Suspected security forces raided the offices of the daily tabloid Red Pepper in July after the paper printed a series of sensitive articles concerning military intelligence, Managing Editor Arinaitwe Rugyendo told CPJ. At least 10 men armed with AK-47 rifles raided the newspaper’s office and set fire to its generator and printer, the editor said. A security system videotape showed that the vehicles used and clothing worn by the men were consistent with those of government security forces. Minister of Information Kirunda Kivenjinja told CPJ that a wide range of people could have conducted the attack because the paper was “not professional” and “tread on too many people’s toes.”

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