Ugandan journalists protest on World Press Freedom Day in 2011. (Edward Echwalu)
Ugandan journalists protest on World Press Freedom Day in 2011. (Edward Echwalu)

Amid assaults on press, Uganda police promise reforms

Joseph Mutebi, a photojournalist for the popular vernacular state-owned daily Bukedde, spent his afternoon trying to file a complaint with the police in the capital, Kampala. “First they told me the officer who assaulted me was based at another station, so I went there and now they are telling me he is based at the police station where I originally went. So I am confused. I think they are just playing with me.” Mutebi’s case is not uncommon–both in terms of the constant threat journalists face from Uganda’s police force and the challenges they encounter trying to file a complaint.

Thursday, Mutebi had gone to cover a protest organized by the “boda-boda” drivers (Uganda’s motorcycle taxis) outside Old Kampala Police Station along with several journalists from other media houses. “Once I took my camera out an officer came from behind and hit me twice with a baton,” he told me. Why Mutebi was singled out from the rest of the press is a mystery to him. “I don’t know, perhaps because I have been a crime reporter for the past eight years and they recognized me?” he said. After going to the hospital to receive treatment for the blows to his back, Mutebi is now undertaking another agonizing process: trying to get justice.

There is some hope that justice may be more readily served in the future. Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura is forming a new press unit of police to act as an ombudsman for complaints by journalists and as a public relations department. “The inspector general is committed to professionalizing the police force,” Simon Kuteesa, who will run the new unit, told me. “We are not re-inventing the wheel here–it’s all part of a strategic initiative.” The new unit is expected to be operational in three months, he said.

Kuteesa is the former head of the police’s media crimes unit, a division specially designed to monitor Uganda’s press. Wokulira Ssebaggala, program coordinator for the Ugandan Human Rights Network for Journalists–an organization that documents and fights police attacks on the press on a weekly, if not daily, basis–is skeptical. “So the Media Crimes department, formerly run by Kuteesa, will continue to function alongside this new department…We are not optimistic about this but will wait and see,” Ssebaggala said.

There is certainly a need. According to CPJ research, the police were responsible in 25 cases last year of direct, physical attacks on journalists, none of which were punished. This year is not looking any better, with 10 cases already recorded by CPJ of police physically attacking the press. Mutebi believes the high number of assaults is due to the police force’s lack of professionalism. “Some are not trained very well and often don’t listen to their commanders, they just try to resolve everything with beating,” he said. Even worse, their bosses rarely confront their officers over such attacks, Mutebi said.

The police force’s attitude toward the press is a problem, says Sula Mutebi (no relation to Joseph Mutebi), a cameraman for Bukedde TV, the sister broadcaster to the newspaper. “Political leaders see the press as activists. President [Yoweri] Museveni recently accused the press of being bribed so, whether right or wrong, we are seen as the opposition to authorities.” A female police sergeant slapped Sula Mutebi and detained him at a police post for an hour and a half on Wednesday after he attempted to cover a story about a murder investigation in Nakasero Market, Kampala, he said.

Ssebaggala takes Sula Mutebi’s argument one step further. While police see the press as supporters of the opposition, Ssebaggala believes the police institution is compromised and supports individuals within the government. In May, for instance, police quizzed Nyombi Mahmoud, a presenter for private radio Pearl FM, for over two hours regarding a talk show he hosted that debated the level of Ugandan parliamentary democracy in comparison with other countries, the human rights network reported. Assistant Inspector of Police Byamugisha Jackson, who summoned and interrogated him, admitted that he did not see any reason for the investigation but was “acting on orders from above,” the report said.

The high number of police attacks against the press is also due to the political tension on Kampala’s streets in recent years. Mass opposition rallies against rising fuel and commodity prices, known as “walk to work” campaigns, has placed the police in a tight spot, with little interest in media coverage of their actions. “Especially during demonstrations, individual journalists have been targeted as police try to kill the evidence of their own actions,” Ssebaggala told me.

Kuteesa said the assaults are an unfortunate by-product of a force handling a difficult situation. “Uganda is a young democracy,” Kuteesa said. “People are trying to exert their rights and not everyone is rational–some resort to violence, especially in the city. The police are facing professional hazards and unfortunately people get injured here and there.”

Voice of America recently cited police spokesman Ibin Ssenkumbi as denying that abuse of journalists is widespread, and saying some journalists brought the problem upon themselves. “There have been a few instances where there have been clashes between a few individual journalists and police, especially during operations.  But that is not an institutional policy. We have also encountered some problems that some of our journalists are actually unprofessional. They want to have limitless powers and freedom in any place at any time, which, practically, is not possible,” he said, VOA reported on Wednesday.

Whether the new department represents a genuine effort to end attacks on the press with impunity or is simply a public relations exercise remains to be seen. Ugandan police attacked two journalists this week, just days after Inspector General Kayihura publicly apologized to the media for the excesses of some officers against the press and promised to investigate the cases, according to local reports. This is not the first apology from the Inspector General, who marched with journalists in an unexpected show of solidarity on World Press Freedom Day last month. “He can apologize today but tomorrow someone is beaten up,” Ssebaggala said.

While many local journalists are skeptical about the new police unit, Sula Mutebi is hopeful and thinks police attitudes are changing. “Actually the police wanted to press charges against the officer that assaulted me. For once I was invited to file a case, so it is an encouraging sign.”

[Reporting from Nairobi]