Military police officers attack journalists and supporters of opposition candidate Bobi Wine outside the U.N. Human RIghts offices in Kampala, Uganda, on February 17, 2021. (AFP/Badru Katumba)

Ugandan soldiers assault journalists at Bobi Wine event, face opaque military trial

Nairobi, February 25, 2021 — Ugandan authorities should ensure that soldiers who recently assaulted journalists covering an opposition political event are held to account in a credible and transparent process, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On February 17, a group of Ugandan military police officers used sticks and batons to beat at least 10 journalists covering opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, known popularly as Bobi Wine, while he delivered a petition to a United Nations office in Kololo, a neighborhood of the capital Kampala, according to nine of those journalists, who spoke to CPJ, media reports, and statements by local press rights groups.

The following day, the head of Uganda’s military, General David Muhoozi, gave a press conference in which he apologized for the attacks and promised to pay the journalists’ medical bills. Also that day, military spokesperson Brigadier General Flavia Byekwaso tweeted that seven officers had been sentenced for their participation in the attack. Their sentences ranged from a “severe reprimand” to 90 days in jail, according to news reports and a statement from the country’s military, which CPJ reviewed.

However, all the journalists who spoke to CPJ said that they had not been aware of the military court process and had not been called to provide evidence, to testify, or to identify their attackers. In a February 21 editorial, the Daily Monitor, a privately owned newspaper whose reporter Irene Abalo was among those assaulted, called the disciplinary process a ”mockery” and a “charade.”

“While swift action against those who attack the press is important, the military trial of the Ugandan military police officers allegedly involved in recent attacks on journalists failed to meet a necessary standard of transparency,” said CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo. “It is not too late to hold the soldiers who assaulted members of the press accountable in a fair and open process, as a key step toward addressing impunity for the violence journalists face all too often while reporting the news in Uganda.”

The journalists who spoke to CPJ said that they followed Bobi Wine in a convoy as he traveled to a UN office to deliver a petition on human rights abuses, but said police stopped the members of the press at a barricade near the office.

After about an hour, two military police cars arrived, a commanding soldier ordered others to chase the media from the area, and the military police officers proceeded to attack the journalists, according to Joseph Sabiti, John Cliff Wamala, Josephine Namakumbi, and Richard Wamala, four of the journalists who were at the scene, and who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

The journalists attacked on February 17 included:

  • Amina Nalule, a reporter with the privately owned broadcaster Galaxy FM, who told CPJ that officers hit her twice with a baton on the head and once on the leg, and that she suffered headaches in the aftermath and had a wound on her thigh
  • Rashidah Nakaayi, also reporter with Galaxy FM, who said that officers injured her knee by beating it with a stick
  • Namakumbi, a reporter and anchor with the privately owned NBS Television, who told CPJ that a soldier hit her with a baton after she fell while running away, leaving her with back pain
  • Richard Wamala, a camera operator with the privately owned BTM Television, who told CPJ that an officer hit him on the head with a blunt object
  • Alice Nalujja, a reporter with BTM Television, who said soldiers beat her with batons, inflicting pain all over her body
  • John Cliff Wamala, a reporter and camera operator with the privately owned station NTV Uganda, who told CPJ that officers hit him on the head and back with batons.
  • Jeff Twesigye, a camera operator with NTV Uganda, who can be heard in footage posted on social media, pleading with soldiers to stop beating him because he is a journalist
  • Irene Abalo, a reporter with the Daily Monitor, a sister-publication of NTV Uganda, who told CPJ that a soldier hit her with a baton, giving her a swollen ankle
  • Timothy Murungi, a deputy photo editor with the state-owned New Vision newspaper, who told CPJ that a soldier hit him in the back of the head with a baton, leaving a wound
  • Henry Sekanjako, a New Vision seniorreporter, who said that an officer hit him with a blunt object, causing swelling and bruises on his shoulder and hand

All the journalists who spoke to CPJ said that police officers manning the barricade witnessed the soldiers’ attack but did not intervene.

Two other journalists, Sabiti, a senior political reporter with NBS Television, and Lawrence Kitatta, a freelance writer and photographer, both told CPJ that they were injured while trying to escape the officers; Sabiti twisted his ankle while running, and Kitatta was scratched by bushes as he escaped.

In initial statements on February 17, both the police and the military claimed that they were carrying out a joint crowd control operation in line with coronavirus-related restrictions, and claimed that they had been securing the UN office from a potential safety breach.

John Cliff Wamala and Richard Wamala both told CPJ that they were assaulted by the officer who ordered the others to begin the attack. In a February 19 report, the Daily Monitor alleged that it had identified that officer as a member of the Army’s elite Special Forces Command, and said that he was not among the seven soldiers tried by the Unit Disciplinary Committee on February 18. CPJ could not independently confirm the officer’s identity.

In a February 19 interview with CPJ via messaging app, Nicholas Opiyo, a Ugandan human rights lawyer, criticized the lack of transparency in the disciplinary committee proceedings, and argued that the offenses ought to have been dealt with by a civilian court. He said he believed the process was meant to pacify the public following outcry at the assaults and would do little to deter impunity in attacks on the press. 

In a telephone interview on February 24, Kampala metropolitan police spokesperson Patrick Onyango told CPJ that police were still carrying out their own inquiry, separate from the military’s processes, and would issue a report at a later date.

In a telephone call today, military spokesperson Byekwaso today told CPJ that she would respond to questions sent via messaging app; CPJ sent those questions, but then she did not respond.

CPJ emailed Lieutenant Colonel Deo Akiiki, the military’s deputy spokesperson, but the message did not go through. When CPJ contacted Akiiki via messaging app, he forwarded official statements about the military trial but did not answer CPJ’s specific questions.

Since November 2020, CPJ has documented the assault and harassment of numerous journalists covering the political opposition in Uganda.

General elections were held in Uganda beginning January 14, amid an internet blackout. Bobi Wine this week withdrew a court petition challenging the victory of incumbent Yoweri Museveni, who was running for his sixth term in office, according to media reports.