Nairobi, August 23, 2018–Security forces beat and detained at least four journalists covering protests in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, on August 20, and confiscated or damaged their equipment. CPJ today condemned the attacks and called on Ugandan authorities to hold those responsible to account.
The journalists were arrested while covering protests in Kampala to demand the release of lawmakers, including opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi, known as Bobi Wine, who were arrested last week in connection to unrest in the northern town of Arua on August 13, during which President Yoweri Museveni’s convoy was stoned, according to reports.
In an August 22 blog post, President Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, condemned the actions of security forces beating journalists, but added that “the journalists working for foreign interests or for our own local parasites tell lies.” On August 19, the president published a blog post about the recent political unrest in which he referred to news outlets including Monitor and NTV as “fake news generators.”
“President Museveni’s public disdain for the news media is especially alarming given the ongoing crackdown by police and military personnel on journalists working to keep Uganda’s public informed,” said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative. “Ugandan authorities should conduct rigorous investigations into the assaults on journalists, hold accountable those responsible, and commit to preventing future violence and detentions by security personnel.”
Journalists attacked and detained on August 20 include Reuters photojournalist James Akena, Alfred Ochwo, a photojournalist with privately owned newspaper The Observer, and NTV journalists Ronald Galiwango and Juma Kirya, according to journalists with whom CPJ spoke.
Footage of the attack on Akena, broadcast on local stations and shared on social media, show at least two military officers beating the journalist with long wooden sticks, even after he dropped to his knees. The soldiers transported Akena to Kampala Central Police Station where he was detained for several hours before being released unconditionally, according to Isaac Kasamani, a freelance photographer with Agence France-Presse, and Michael O’Hagan, co-chairperson of the Foreign Correspondents Association of Uganda.
Kasamani, who went to the police station when he heard of his colleague’s arrest, told CPJ that the military had yet to return Akena’s camera, which they had confiscated, and that a subsequent hospital visit revealed Akena suffered a fractured index finger and a broken ring finger on his left hand, as well as injuries to his head and back.
A statement that Reuters’ public relations department shared with CPJ condemned the attack on Akena and said that the news agency would “evaluate how to address this situation with the local authorities in the coming days.”
Ochwo told CPJ that he was returning to his newspaper’s office after photographing protests when about seven soldiers confronted him. Some of them beat him with wooden sticks and threw his camera to the ground, damaging it. He said he was put in a police pick-up truck, where he found two other journalists, NTV’s Galiwango and Kirya, already held. Ochwo and Kirya told CPJ that one of the soldiers used pliers to pinch and pull Ochwo’s and Galiwango’s flesh, leaving wounds on their shoulders and back.
The journalists were detained for several hours in Central Police Station in Kampala, where they were forced to delete pictures and footage on their cameras. Ochwo told CPJ that he left his camera at the station as evidence for a report of malicious damage and assault that he filed against security personnel.
Ochwo and Kirya told CPJ that the security personnel appeared to be going after anyone recording the protests. They said that three more people who had been recording and taking pictures with their phones were arrested put into the truck with them. Kasamani told CPJ that on the day of the protests he saw military personnel confiscating the phone of a young man who had been filming security forces at the protest and in a separate incident an officer warned a man against filming from a shop balcony. “The guy got scared and ran away,” Kasamani said.
In a statement circulated on Twitter, army spokesperson Richard Karemire said the military was displeased over the “unprofessional conduct of soldiers who molested some journalists.” He added that the Chief of Defense Forces has ordered the arrest and punishment of those involved had been ordered. Karemire on August 21 declined to specify to CPJ if any arrests had been made. Karemire on August 17 made similar statements to CPJ following the assault of journalists in Arua.
Speaking to CPJ via telephone on August 21, police spokesperson Emilian Kayima reiterated statements he made to CPJ the week prior that security personnel did not target journalists and termed the assault and detention of Akena as “unfortunate,” saying that he had asked the photojournalist to record a statement with police.
Security minister General Elly Tumwine on August 21 told CPJ not to “waste” his time, and that he was concerned with the security of all Ugandans and not “isolated groups” like journalists, before hanging up. When CPJ called him back to ask about journalists being specifically targeted during their coverage of the protests, Tumwine repeated earlier comments that he was concerned about the security of everyone, before hanging up.