Riot police officers fire tear gas in Luuka district, Uganda, on November 18, 2020. Authorities have attacked and obstructed journalists covering the country's upcoming elections. (Reuters/Abubaker Lubowa)

Journalists attacked, deported ahead of January elections in Uganda

Nairobi, December 11, 2020 — Ugandan authorities should ensure that journalists can cover the country’s upcoming elections safely and freely and should thoroughly investigate all attacks on the press by members of the public and by security forces, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Since early November, police officers and members of the public have harassed and attacked at least seven journalists covering campaigns for the country’s upcoming presidential elections, according to reports by local press rights groups and journalists who spoke to CPJ. The majority of the attacks and harassment have been directed toward journalists covering opposition candidates, according to those sources. Authorities have also issued new guidelines requiring foreign journalists to reapply for their accreditations within a week and have deported at least one foreign news crew, according to news reports.

In January 2021, incumbent President Yoweri Museveni will seek a sixth term, amid a challenge from musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, according to news reports. During the campaign, security personnel have arrested opposition candidates and violently dispersed political rallies and protests, according to those reports.

“Ugandan authorities’ crackdown on the press exposes an unacceptable willingness to sacrifice the safety of journalists and the public’s right to information, for the sake of censoring coverage of the upcoming elections,” said CPJ Sub-Saharan Africa Representative Muthoki Mumo. “Ugandan authorities must investigate attacks on the press and hold those responsible to account, and ensure that journalists have the access they need to do their jobs.”

On November 5, in Kampala, the capital, a police officer shot Moses Bwayo, a freelance video journalist and filmmaker, in the face with a rubber bullet while he was covering a convoy that was transporting Bobi Wine, the journalist told CPJ via messaging app.

Bwayo said he tried to protect himself by lifting his camera to cover his face, but that he suffered a wound to one of his cheekbones and was treated at a local hospital. In an image shared on Twitter by the Foreign Correspondents Association of Uganda, a body representing journalists who contribute to international media, Bwayo can be seen bleeding from a wound on his cheek.

Bwayo told CPJ that he had reported the incident to the Kiira police station in Kampala on November 17, but that police had not given him a case reference number as of December 9, which would indicate that authorities had officially recorded his report and were intending to investigate.

On November 11, a group of men in the northern town of Lira attacked a news crew from the privately owned broadcaster NBS TV, who were covering a campaign stop by Bobi Wine, according to a report by the station and statements by local rights groups.

The men, who had set up a roadblock using burning tires, used large stones to break the windows of the company-branded vehicle, in which camera operator Thomas Kitimbo and reporter Daniel Lutaaya were traveling, and stole a laptop and chargers from the journalists, according to those reports and statements. NBS TV reported that Kitimbo suffered minor injuries to his arms and face.

The NBS TV crew reported the incident to local police, who launched an investigation and had arrested one suspect by November 12, according to the station’s report.

Desire Derekford Mugumisa, the head of communications at NBS TV’s parent company, Next Media Services, told CPJ via messaging app yesterday that police had used footage from the NBS TV crew to make further arrests, and said that the equipment taken from the journalists had been recovered.

On November 18, in the eastern Luuka district, police officers pepper-sprayed Kasirye Saif-Ilah Ashraf, a reporter with the YouTube-based news outlet Ghetto TV, while he was filming authorities arrest Bobi Wine at the site of a planned rally, according to Kasirye and another journalist who witnessed the incident, Abubaker Lubowa, both of whom spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Kasirye, whose station is supportive of Bobi Wine, told CPJ that he was filming live from the rooftop of a car when several police officers tried to pull him down, and in the struggle, officers pried his eyes and mouth open and pepper sprayed him.

“It felt like my intestines were being chopped into pieces and my eyes were falling out,” Kasirye told CPJ. Medical reports reviewed by CPJ indicate he was treated for severe abdominal pain and irritation to his eyes.

Also at the Luuka rally site on November 18, police assaulted Balikowa Samuel, a reporter with the privately owned broadcaster City FM, the journalist told CPJ via messaging app.

Balikowa said that he and other journalists at the scene were shouting to the officers who assaulted Kasirye, telling them that Kasirye was a journalist, when officers beat him on the chest and legs with batons and kicked him. Balikowa told CPJ he had pain in his chest and right leg and cuts on his back and had to be hospitalized for two days.

He told CPJ that the officers also broke his phone and his tripod stand, and detained him in a police van, but released him after about 40 minutes. When he tried to demand an explanation for his brief detention, he was threatened with further assault, he said.

Also that day, in Kampala, a group of people attacked Arthur Wadero, a reporter with the privately owned Daily Monitor newspaper, while he was interviewing a protestor who was demonstrating against Bobi Wine’s arrest, Wadero told CPJ via messaging app.

The group accused Wadero of being an informer for security personnel, and then about five men kicked, punched, and beat him with sticks, he said. Wadero told CPJ he did not suffer serious injuries but said that the men tore his clothes and he had to go back to his office “half naked.”

On December 1, in the eastern town of Jinja, police fired a rubber bullet that hit a freelance journalist in the hip while they were covering a Bobi Wine campaign event, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity because they were afraid for their safety.

The journalist said that an officer shouted and accused them of causing trouble and threatened to shoot; when the journalist turned to flee, they said the officer shot them in the back with a rubber bullet, hitting them in the hip and causing extensive bruising.

Government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo P’Odel told CPJ via messaging app that police denied targeting the media, and claimed that journalists had been hit or sprayed with teargas as they “tried to obstruct the dispersal of riotous crowds.”  P’Odel said that authorities were investigating recent assault allegations, including the police narrative of such events.

Uganda national police spokesperson Fred Enanga and Kampala metropolitan police spokesperson Patrick Onyango did not answer calls and text messages from CPJ.

Separately, on November 27, Ugandan officials deported a news crew from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, comprising producer Lily Martin, videographer Jean-Francois Bisson, and correspondent Margaret Evans, according to a report by the public broadcaster. That report said that that the journalists had been granted accreditations by the Media Council of Uganda, a statutory regulatory body.

In his messages with CPJ, P’Odel claimed that the CBC journalists were in breach of their visas and were therefore “appropriately removed from Uganda.”

Yesterday, the Media Council issued new guidelines requiring foreign journalists to reapply for their accreditations within one week, as a part of broader rules that require all journalists covering elections to have identification documents issued by the council, according to a statement issued by the body, which CPJ reviewed, and Media Council Secretary Kyetume Kasanga, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

In the statement, officials claim that the guidelines were prompted by concerns for journalists’ safety and are meant to “sanitize [the industry] of quacks.”

A new application form for foreign journalists asks for information about the marital status of applicants, the number of children they have, and requires an Interpol certificate of good conduct from their country of origin. Kasanga said that questions about the families of journalists are meant to gauge whether they are “stable” and said that journalists already in Uganda who are reapplying for accreditation could request to have the Interpol requirement waived.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of Uganda said in a tweet that the new guidelines were a “serious escalation in attacks on press freedom.” The association also tweeted that Ugandan officials had failed to respond to questions from another industry body, the Foreign Correspondents Association of East Africa, about the accreditation process for international journalists.

Kasanga said that foreign journalists can continue using their current press cards pending the new ones, and claimed that the pre-existing accreditation cards were prone to forgery.