Security forces gather in Kampala, Uganda, on January 14, 2021. Security forces harassed journalists covering the country's recent elections, and shut down at least one radio station. (AP/Jerome Delay)

Ugandan security personnel harass journalists, shut down radio station during elections

Between January 12 and January 20, 2021, Ugandan security personnel harassed and detained at least four journalists covering the country’s general elections, and shut down at least one radio station, according to a statement by the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, a local human rights group, and journalists who spoke to CPJ.

Ugandans voted in presidential and parliamentary elections on January 14, and continued voting for local and special representatives until February 3, according to the Electoral Commission’s website. CPJ has previously documented numerous press freedom violations in the weeks leading up to the elections—including detention and assaults, as well as internet disruptions.

On the evening of January 12, soldiers in the northern Nebbi district assaulted and detained Emmanuel Ojok, a reporter with the state-owned New Vision newspaper, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and a tweet by Chapter Four Uganda, a local rights group.

Ojok told CPJ that the soldiers noticed him filming a confrontation they were having with Robert Onega, an opposition parliamentary candidate, and started beating the journalist with sticks. Ojok said an officer grabbed his phone, deleted footage he had taken, and smashed it.

The soldiers transferred Ojok to police custody, and he was held at a local police station until the following day; police then released him on bond, pending an investigation into allegations that he committed malicious damage to property, and with a requirement that he appear before police when ordered, he said. Ojok told CPJ that he had made two appearances at the station as of February 4, but police had not specified what damage he allegedly committed. Under Uganda’s penal code, malicious property damage carries a prison term of five years to life, depending on the type of property.

Ojok told CPJ that he suffered pains on his shoulder, head, arms, and legs from the beating, and that he was treated at the Nebbi General Hospital.

On January 14, the day voting began, at about 6:30 p.m., police in the eastern city of Jinja surrounded and closed Busoga One, a privately owned radio station whose owners include an opposition politician, and accused the outlet of inciting violence in its coverage of the provisional results of the presidential and parliamentary elections, according to media reports and the station’s manager, Innocent Anyole, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Anyole gave a statement to police on January 17, in which he denied the incitement allegations, and the following day police obtained recordings of Busoga One’s election-day coverage after presenting a court warrant, Anyole said.

On January 22, Busoga One filed a civil suit against the police and the broadcasting regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission, seeking damages for the closure of the station, according to Anyole and those media reports.

The following day, police, who had occupied the Busoga One premises since January 14, vacated the office and allowed the station back on air, Anyole said. As of February 4, the High Court of Uganda had not set a hearing date for the station’s civil suit, Anyole told CPJ.

On January 20, police detained Charles Kyalisiima, a reporter and talk show host with the privately owned broadcaster Radio Kitara, for about an hour while he was reporting at a polling station in the western Masindi district, he told CPJ via messaging app.

Kyalisiima said that about six uniformed police officers and one plains-clothed officer surrounded him while he was broadcasting live, accused him of inciting violence, and questioned him about his work. He said they told him to do his work with “care,” warning him that, if he faced charges, he could be entangled in a court case for a long time. The officers then released him unconditionally, he said.

Also on January 20, police in Uganda’s eastern Jinja district harassed and briefly detained Hakim Kanyere, a bureau chief with the privately owned NBS TV broadcaster, while he was filming a confrontation among supporters of the opposition National Unity Platform party, electoral officials, and supporters of the ruling National Resistance Movement party, according to the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda statement and the journalist, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Kanyere told CPJ that Assistant Superintendent Epaphrus Rukundo Bitamazire, who commands the Walukaba police station in Jinja district, ordered him to stop filming and threatened to break his camera, and when the journalist refused to comply, ordered his arrest. Kanyere said that several police officers forced him into a cell, damaging his camera in the process, but released him unconditionally after a few minutes.

When CPJ called Bitamazire, he declined to comment about Kanyere’s case and referred CPJ to the Kiira regional police spokesperson, Abbey Ngako. Ngako also refused to comment in a phone call with CPJ, saying that he would need to verify CPJ’s credentials and referred CPJ to the national police spokesperson.

Separately on January 20, at about 9:30 p.m., military personnel in the central Mityana district beat Nyanzi William Kaddu, a reporter with Prime Radio, a broadcaster run by the Seventh-Day Adventist church, after accusing him of contravening coronavirus-related movement restrictions by riding a motorcycle after 6:00 p.m., according to the human rights network’s statement and the journalist, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. The soldiers were riding in a Uganda National Roads Authority pick-up truck, a state agency that builds and maintains roads in the country, Kaddu said.

Kaddu told CPJ that he identified himself as a journalist and showed his Prime Radio identification, and told the soldiers that he was going to the local vote tallying center to cover the results of the district council elections. In an April 2020 address, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had declared media workers as essential personnel, who are exempted from COVID-19 restrictions.

The soldiers rejected Kaddu’s explanation, and started beating him on his back, head, and legs, with sticks and a bicycle cable, he said. He said he started his motorcycle and fled the scene, after sustaining injuries all over his body. Kaddu said he received outpatient treatment at a local hospital the following day.

On January 21, Kaddu reported the incident to Uganda Army Deputy Spokesperson Deo Akiiki, and the regional police spokesperson, Rachel Kawala, he told CPJ, saying that Kawala promised to follow up on his case.

In a phone interview with CPJ on February 5, Kawala said that Kaddu should file a formal report about the assault to the Mityana Central Police Station, and that police would then carry out an investigation. Kaddu told CPJ that he had not reported the case at the police station, because police had previously told him that they do not investigate cases against the military.

In a February 8 email, Akiiki told CPJ that the military was investigating all complaints brought to its attention, with the exception of matters in court, and urged those affected to make complaints with the army’s offices. He did not comment on Kaddu or Ojok’s specific cases.

In a February 5 phone call, Hiriga Dauda Were, the Kiira regional police commander whose jurisdiction incudes Jinja, told CPJ that he was not authorized to speak to the press when asked about the shutdown of Busoga One Radio and the assault of Kanyere.

CPJ emailed the Uganda Police Force for comment but did not receive any response. CPJ called national police spokesperson Fred Enanga for comment, but his phone was busy or rang unanswered on multiple occasions and he did not respond to WhatsApp and text messages.

In February 8 email, the Uganda National Roads Authority said that CPJ’s queries had been forwarded to “the responsible office” for response “at the earliest convenience.” CPJ did not receive any response by the time of publication.