Left to right: HRNJ-U executive director Robert Ssempala, HRNJ-U vice chair Jackie Namboga, journalist Jacklin Nabatanzi, HRNJ-U legal aid and support officer Diana Nandudu, and Nabatanzi's mother are seen after Namboga was released from detention on June 13, 2022. Ugandan authorities have recently investigated four journalists in a murder investigation, and jailed two. (Photo: HRNJ-U)

Ugandan authorities investigate 4 journalists in murder case, charge and jail 2

Nairobi, July 22, 2022 – Ugandan authorities should release journalists Ivan Mutyaba and Denis Isabirye immediately, drop all the charges against them, and drop their investigations into reporters Jacklin Nabatanzi and Muganza Julius Kiyumba, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

The four journalists are among a group of suspects recently arrested for their alleged connection to the May 14 murder of businessman Shaban Malole, according to news reports.

The journalists were named as suspects in that investigation because they had contacted Malole and his family members on May 14 as part of their reporting on a land dispute involving the businessman, according to a report by the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-U), a local press rights group that is providing legal support to the journalists, and people familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ.

Authorities arrested Nabatanzi in June and detained the other three reporters in July; as of Friday, July 22, Nabatanzi and Kiyumba are under investigation but have not been charged with any crime, while Mutyaba and Isabirye were charged with murder and conspiracy to murder and are held in Kirinya Prison in the eastern city of Jinja, according to the HRNJ-U and those media reports.

“Ugandan authorities should release journalists Ivan Mutyaba and Denis Isabirye, and ensure that members of the press do not face jail time for simply doing their jobs,” said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative. “Mutyaba and Isabirye, in addition to journalists Jacklin Nabatanzi and Muganza Julius Kiyumba, are being drawn into a criminal investigation simply because they were covering someone who was later killed. Authorities should ensure that the journalists can work safely and free from legal harassment.”

Authorities arrested Nabatanzi, a reporter with the privately owned broadcaster Kiira FM, on June 11 on the pretense that she possessed a stolen phone, the journalist told CPJ in a phone interview. During questioning, officers confiscated her phone but only questioned her about Malole’s killing, she said.

“I was crying. I was totally confused,” said Nabatanzi, who was eight months pregnant at the time of the arrest. “They wanted me to tell them something I didn’t know, I didn’t see.”

Authorities released her without charge on June 13, on the condition that she report to police as directed, according to the journalist and a police document published by HRNJ-U on Twitter. Officers had not returned her phone as of July 22, she said.

Authorities arrested Kiyumba, a reporter with the privately owned broadcaster City FM 96, on July 4 and released him on bond, which requires him to appear at the station whenever directed by police, on July 6, according to the journalist and City FM 96 station manager Richard Kiria, both of whom spoke to CPJ via messaging app

Kiyumba was released without charge, but police are continuing to investigate him for alleged murder, conspiracy to murder, and concealing information about a murder, according to Kiria.

Authorities arrested Isabirye, a reporter for the privately owned broadcaster Baba FM, on July 2, and summoned Mutyaba, a reporter for the privately owned broadcaster Busoga One Radio 90.6 FM, for questioning on July 4, according to Busoga One manager Innocent Anyole and HRNJ-U legal program officer Diana Nandudu, both of whom spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

At a court hearing on July 6, both journalists were charged with murder and conspiracy to murder, and then were sent to prison, according to those sources, Kiria, and news reports. If convicted, murder carries the death penalty and conspiracy carries up to 14 years imprisonment, according to the penal code.

Mutyaba and Isabirye were not able to enter a plea during that hearing, as the court did not have the jurisdiction to adjudicate capital offenses and was only holding the hearing to announce the charges, according to the state-owned newspaper News Vision.

The pair are due back in court for a bail hearing on July 25, Anyole told CPJ.

The four journalists traveled from Jinja to the disputed land site in Kamuli district on May 14, spoke to several of Malole’s family members, and tried but failed to interview Malole, who declined to speak to them, according to Kiyumba and Nabatanzi.

That evening, after the journalists had returned to Jinja, Malole was shot and killed in his home, according to those sources and news reports.

Abbey Mwase, a local politician and relative of Malole, provided the vehicle the journalists used and accompanied them on their reporting trip; he was detained after police alleged that his vehicle had been used to transport weapons, according to news reports, Anyole, Kiria, and Nabatanzi.

Nabatanzi and Kiyumba denied that the vehicle had been used to transport weapons.

When CPJ called Kiira regional police spokesperson James Mubi, he said he could not comment while the case remained before the court.

In a phone interview with CPJ on Friday, Irene Nakimbugwe, deputy spokesperson of Uganda’s Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, said authorities had charged Mutyaba and Isabirye because there was evidence linking them to the murder, and not because of their journalism.

Nakimbugwe said it was up to the courts to adjudicate the evidence and added that she could not comment on the specifics of the case amid ongoing investigations.

[Editors’ note: This article has been changed in its image caption to correctly identify Nabatanzi’s mother, and in its ninth paragraph to characterize the conditions of Kiyumba’s release from custody.]