Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who is under house arrest, speaks during a news conference at his home on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital, on February 21. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)
Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who is under house arrest, speaks during a news conference at his home on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital, on February 21. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

After disputed Uganda election, journalists fear prolonged crackdown

Twenty nine-year-old photographer Abubaker Lubowa was excited when he was assigned to cover the campaign of opposition leader Kizza Besigye. He told CPJ he did not anticipate that the assignment would mean he would make the news almost as often as he covered it.

On February 27, Lubowa and a colleague at the privately owned Daily Monitor newspaper were arrested at the opposition leader’s private residence in the Ugandan capital, where Besigye has been confined since widely disputed election results were announced on February 20, extending the 30-year rule of President Yoweri Museveni.

On February 22 at the same location, Lubowa and another photographer, Isaac Kasamani of the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), had been attacked by a man wielding a pepper spray can in the company of uniformed police. Kasamani was extensively covered in stinging spray but Lubowa managed to escape–just as he did on November 16 when another colleague, Isaac Kugonza, suffered a cracked skull in clashes between protesters and police.

Uganda has long had one of the most vibrant media environments in the Horn of Africa, but CPJ has documented an extended series of attacks on journalists covering the political opposition, particularly during elections. (During the most recent campaign, radio stations were closed and journalists were beaten or arrested–including one radio host who was pulled off the air mid-broadcast and detained alongside seven politicians he was interviewing.)

Now, local journalists and press freedom advocates say that the controversial election may usher in a prolonged period of media repression.

“When you consistently raise questions about the legitimacy of any set of rulers, you inevitably trigger panic in their minds,” Haruna Kanaabi, executive secretary of the Independent Media Council, an association of Ugandan media companies, told CPJ. “But the crackdown against the media is ill advised because journalists are not the ones raising the questions. They are simply conveying the queries that many have raised about the election. They should be allowed to do their jobs.”

The February 18 vote was criticized in forthright terms by international observers.The European Union concluded that the Electoral Commission lacked “transparency and independence” and that “state actors were instrumental in creating an intimidating atmosphere.” The Commonwealth team of observers noted the “increased prevalence of money in politics, alleged misuse of state resources, inequitable media coverage, and question marks over the secrecy of the ballot and the competence of the Electoral Commission to manage the process.”

The decision by authorities to block social media platforms on election day was also strongly criticized, with CPJ pointing out that restricting access to platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook made it harder for citizens to report on any voting irregularities.

The Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, an independent advocacy group, reported that more than 40 journalists had been detained, beaten, or forced out of work while covering the presidential campaigns between October and February.

The organization’s legal officer, Diana Nandudu, told CPJ the situation had worsened since.

“Every day, we witness a case of arrest or physical assault of journalists. It seems the authorities don’t want people to know what happened during the election,” she said. “It is a terrible thing when the basic safety of journalists and their ability to access areas where the news is unfolding cannot be guaranteed and the situation is worse in rural areas where you don’t have the same level of exposure and scrutiny of state officers’ actions as in the capital.”

Godfrey Mutabazi, executive director of the regulatory Uganda Communications Commission, told CPJ that restrictions against the media were necessary to preserve law and order in the country. In a previous interview, he defended the closure of several radio stations, saying the moves were aimed at avoiding incitement to violence.

But others say the authorities are waging a crackdown not seen in Uganda for decades.

Journalists attempting to cover the continued detention of Besigye–whose house arrest has been condemned by many, including the U.S. State Department–have been routinely arrested, according to the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda.

Today, two journalists with the privately owned NBS TV were taken into custody outside Besigye’s home while covering his latest detention as he attempted to leave his home, according to news reports.

Also today, Abubaker Muwonge, from Chinese state-owned broadcaster CCTV, was arrested and held for several hours after filming the release of a piglet adorned in the bright yellow colors of the ruling party by unknown activists outside State House, news reports said.

Livingstone Sewanyana, the head of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, a campaign group, called on representatives of the media and state authorities to hold talks to ease the tensions.

He told CPJ that lasting reforms including changes to the regulatory framework to give journalists more freedom were necessary, but he called on journalists to also “balance rights and responsibilities” in their approach to work.

For many practitioners, however, it is hard to see how they can do their jobs effectively when they feel in constant danger.

“You are always scared when you are in the field,” said Lubowa, the photographer with the Daily Monitor, who was released after being held for a few hours on February 27. “You fear for your life. You can be tear-gassed, pepper sprayed, or worse. The police expect us to do our work exactly as they tell us to which is impossible. The pressure on us is just too high.”