Unknown assailants on April 8, 2017, abducted and assaulted Gertrude Uwitware, a health reporter for the private Ugandan broadcaster NTV, from the streets of Kampala, according to the journalist and her employer.
On April 2, Uwitware published an article on her blog praising Stella Nyanzi, an academic jailed for Facebook posts criticizing Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his wife, Janet, who is also the education minister. Over the course of several days she also posted material in support of Nyanzi on Facebook and Twitter, she told CPJ.
“Maybe we need more of Stella Nyanzi characters to join the war, to rid this country of these moles eating it at a slow but steady pace,” Uwitware wrote on her blog. “If only the media used its tool to hold accountable rather than please the first family, maybe things would be better. I stand up, I will fight for motherland as long as I can, this is a solemn pledge I make, I’m only answerable to God who will ask me what my contribution was to this world.”
The journalist told CPJ that two days later, she received threatening messages on Facebook from someone calling himself Agaba Tindyebwa.
“Gertrude, How are you?” the messages began. “Am here to warn you over your Facebook posts about Stella Nyanzi. Please pull them off as soon as you can. Otherwise your life is at huge risk. Not only your life + your family, because they will miss you. Please take this matter seriously, we know where you stay and don’t try to play games like I said, your family will miss you forever.”
The account was soon deleted, Uwitware said.
Uwitware told CPJ that on April 8 she was walking back to work in Kampala after lunch when a man and a woman forced her into a vehicle at gunpoint. She said she was unable to identify them because they were both wearing sunglasses. She was held hostage for eight hours.
During that time, she was blindfolded and her abductors repeatedly asked her whom she was working for and who was funding her as they drove her around Kampala, making at least three stops.
Uwitware told CPJ that her abductors asked her repeatedly about her article on Nyanzi. “They told me: ‘You are supposed to be with us.'”
Uwitware said she asked the male abductor whether he was “Agaba Tindeybwa.” The man “laughed scornfully and said ‘I am not Agaba, I am his messenger,” the journalist told CPJ.
The woman “slapped me a couple of times” and “poured beer in my face” as they drove around, Uwitware said. The woman also chopped off Uwitware’s hair.
Uwitware told CPJ that the two questioned her about her child and husband, and that they forced her to delete her Facebook posts about Nyanzi, which she did from her phone. She said the two also wanted her to delete her Twitter account, which she was unable to do on her phone. The journalist said she was dropped off about 30 minutes from her home at about 11:30 p.m. that night. Her abductors warned her, “Don’t ever post about Nyanzi.”
Uwitware said that she immediately called her husband to pick her up when the two dropped her off. When she reached him, he was with the inspector-general of police because he had reported her missing, she said. She and her family are now under police protection, Uwitware said.
On April 9 Ugandan police published a statement on Twitter saying that the journalist had been found.
“Police investigations are underway to get to the bottom of this case and bring the culprits to book,” the statement by Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesman Emilian Kayima said. “The Police condemns the cowardly acts of the criminals involved in this and other incidents of this nature and warns strongly against such…acts.”
Kayima told CPJ that he could not confirm whether police had made any arrests in the case, and that he would receive a briefing later in the week.
NTV also published a statement in which it condemned “these cowardly acts against the Fourth Estate.”