Members of the Local Defence Unit in Kampala, Uganda, distribute food to civilians affected by lockdown measures to stop coronavirus on April 4, 2020. Local officials recently arrested, attacked, and confiscated equipment of radio journalists in western Uganda. (Reuters/Abubaker Lubowa)

Local officials arrested, attacked, and confiscated equipment of radio journalists in western Uganda

Between April 3, 2020, and May 28, 2020, officials in the western Uganda district of Kabale arrested journalist Rogers Asiimwe of Freedom Radio; assaulted journalist Bob Rumanzi, also of Freedom Radio; and temporarily confiscated the phone of Richard Akandwanaho, then of Voice of Kigezi radio, the journalists told CPJ in interviews via messaging apps.  

Asiimwe, a presenter and producer with the privately-owned Freedom Radio, told CPJ he was arrested on April 4 after responding to police summons and was released on bond the next day. He said police officers questioned him about COVID-19 programming on his radio show. Police are investigating him on charges of “disobedience of lawful orders” but he has not yet been formally charged in court, according to Asiimwe and a police bond document seen by CPJ. He was ordered to appear at Kabale police station on April 7 and every two weeks after that, according to these same sources.

Asiimwe told CPJ that in the days leading up to his arrest he had discussed the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, and the lockdown measures put in place by the Ugandan government to contain the spread of COVID-19 on his science and technology radio show.

Reached via messaging app, regional police spokesperson Elly Matte told CPJ that Asiimwe was arrested for “spreading harmful propaganda and sabotaging the government’s move to curb [COVID-19]” following a complaint from Kabale resident district commissioner Darius Nandinda. In a June 11 phone call, Nandinda told CPJ that Asiimwe had attacked the “person of the President [Yoweri Museveni]” on air, by alleging that the pandemic was being used as a pretext to crack down on the opposition and that local authorities were misappropriating money meant to manage COVID-19 in the region.

In a related incident, Rumanzi, a presenter and operations manager at Freedom Radio, told CPJ that Nandinda and a group of police officers came to the Freedom Radio station on April 3 looking for Asiimwe. Rumanzi said that Nandinda then turned on him, and confronted him and slapped him the face without explanation. The officers forced him into a waiting vehicle and drove him about five miles away to an isolated location outside Kabale town. After leaving the vehicle they kicked and slapped him and shouted at him about what they described as his negative coverage of the government, he said. They also accused him of giving a voice to the opposition by hosting politician Kizza Besigye who appeared on Rumanzi’s show on March 8, Rumanzi added. He said he suffered minor injuries, including a headache, but did not seek medical treatment.

When asked about this incident in a phone call on June 11, district commissioner Nandida said that no journalist had been assaulted. He accused Rumanzi of “attacking” the government in his reporting. Regional police spokesperson Matte and district police commander Brian Ampaire, who spoke with CPJ separately via messaging app, said that they could not comment on the alleged incident because no formal report had been filed with the police.

Rumanzi told CPJ that almost two months later, on May 28, he received calls from his neighbors while he was live on air, telling him that his home had been surrounded by security personnel.

Sophan Niwamanya, another Kabale radio journalist who identified himself to CPJ as Rumanzi’s neighbor, said he called Rumanzi after five officers came to his home demanding to know where Rumanzi lived. Rumanzi told CPJ that officers also came to the Freedom Radio studio. He said that he locked himself inside the studio, an experience he posted about on Facebook, and spent five nights at the station, fearing his arrest. Rumanzi told CPJ he believes he was targeted because he discussed deteriorating conditions for journalists in the region on his radio show on the evening of May 28.

District police commander Ampaire told CPJ that he had no information about this incident. Regional police spokesperson Matte referred CPJ to the Criminal Investigation Department for comment on whether there had been or currently are plans to arrest Rumanzi. In a phone call with CPJ on June 15, the national spokesperson for the department, Charles Twine, refused to answer questions, saying he could not “authenticate” CPJ’s phone call. He directed CPJ to send queries via the Uganda Police Force’s official communication channels. CPJ sent an email to an address listed on the force’s website on June 15 but did not receive a reply.  

Another incident involved reporter Akandwanaho while he was with Voice of Kigezi radio; he has recently been suspended from the station. He told CPJ that on May 27 district commissioner Nandinda confiscated his phone while he was using it to take pictures of an operation in Kabale town in which local officials were impounding vehicles breaching COVID-19 movement restrictions.

The next day, May 28, a group of about 15 journalists marched to Nandinda’s office in protest of the confiscation of Akandwanaho’s phone and other attacks on the press, according to Rumanzi, Akandwanaho, and two other journalists, Job Namanya, and Uziah Tusaaire, who were at the march. Akandwanaho told CPJ that he retrieved his phone from police later that day.

Akandwanaho told CPJ that on May 28 he was indefinitely suspended from Voice of Kigezi and claimed that this was due to the influence of district commissioner Nandinda. The station’s manager, Andrew Agaba, denied that he was influenced by Nandinda and told CPJ that the station had disciplinary concerns about the journalist, including that he allegedly violated editorial guidelines.

In a June 17 telephone call with CPJ, Nandinda denied pressuring Voice of Kigezi to suspend Akandwanaho. He said, in fact, that he had recently appealed to the station to reinstate the journalist. When asked about the alleged request to reinstate Akandwanaho, Agaba declined to comment.

On June 1, a group of 10 journalists from Kabale wrote to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who appointed district commissioner Nandinda, accusing Nandinda of misconduct, including harassment of the press, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by CPJ. Esther Mbayo, the minister for the presidency, did not answer calls from CPJ or respond to a message asking if her office was planning to take any action in light of the journalists’ open letter.