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Uganda: Journalists targeted as government revokes foreign press passes before elections

Ugandan journalist Moses Bwayo was shot in the face by police last month, part of a Ugandan government crackdown on journalists covering the presidential election.
Ugandan journalist Moses Bwayo was shot in the face by police last month, part of a Ugandan government crackdown on journalists covering the presidential election. © Kitatta Lawrence

In a move a little over a month before the presidential election, Uganda has revoked the media accreditations of all foreign journalists, including those already registered to cover the 14 January polls, according to the government-run Media Council of Uganda on Thursday.

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“The Media Council has been registering reporters…to ensure the industry is well-monitored and sanitized from quacks,” according to the statement, inferring that only journalists vetted and approved by authorities would be protected from danger while covering important events during the election cycle.

The Media Council also reiterated that it had the power to censor films or other media for public consumption.

For Ugandan journalists who registered many years ago with the Media Council, this new regulation will make it complicated for the majority of the journalists, whether they are Ugandan or foreign correspondents.

“The timing is very suspicious, both in terms of when it has been announced, and how much time has been given for conformity,” Daniel Kalinaki, a journalist working with the Nation Media Group as general manager in Uganda tells RFI.

The new accreditation would apply to journalists and media houses and required for 2021, which includes the coverage of the end of election campaigning.

Deporting and defaming journalists

Both Ugandan and foreign journalists have been targeted for some time, says Moses Bwayo, a Ugandan freelance television journalist who was shot by police point-blank in the face with a rubber bullet last month.

“I couldn’t really process the moment what was going on. I just heard one police commander say “shoot them, kill them all!” and then a policeman shot me in my face,” he tells RFI.

He had been filming the arrival of popular opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine at his National Unity Platform party office. And he was arrested earlier this year while covering a music video that Bobi Wine, who is also a musician, was filming in the capital, Kampala.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Uganda (FCAU) sent a letter to the Information, Communication and Technology Minister Judith Nabakooba last month, cataloguing the list of violations against the press by security services, from attacks, to defamation on social media by Colonel Paddy Ankunda, who later deleted his tweets falsely stating that foreign journalists in a photo were “pretending to be journalists” and “from the CIA.”

A number of incidents noted both by the FCAU and Ugandan civil society have logged incidents of security services refusing foreign press from entering the country.

“Barring an international journalist just two months before the 2021 elections, sets a disturbing precedent,” according to the letter from the FCAU.

Journalists contacted for this story did not want to go on the record for fear of losing their credentials, but indicated that the security forces have targeted them.

Gunning for the press

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni has not hidden his ire against members of the press who cover opposition candidates. Late last month, he called protests by the opposition parties “acts of impunity” for those with foreign support, according to a report by Voice of America.

“We have seen escalating numbers of violations,” says Robert Ssempala, of the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ) in Kampala, referring to the increase in violence and incidents where the government has targeted journalists, especially those who have covered opposition candidates.

“It’s a trend that has been set. Covering the opposition is like a crime,” says the HRNJ national coordinator.

Local and international journalists have been working to give equal time to presidential candidates—at a price, says Ssempala.

Journalists covering Bobi Wine and Patrick Amuriat, the presidential candidate for his Forum for Democratic Change party, have suffered the wrath of the security forces, he says.

“They’ve been teargassed or pepper-sprayed at close range; those who do live coverage have been interfered with,” says the media expert. He spoke of a recent case where a journalist in the eastern part of the country was covering the arrest of Bobi Wine.

“The station manager of the same radio station was fired by his boss for writing news that to him looked to favor Bobi Wine, so this is an escalation of attacks on journalists and press freedom, especially where fairness or balance is being done to the opposition candidate,” he says.

On the other hand, there has been only one case of journalists being targeted who were covering a Museveni rally—they were barred from a venue after they refused to use video footage given to them by the NRM ruling party.

The Uganda police force also use a newly-formed Violence Suppression Unit to “guard” television and radio stations that host opposition politicians during the 2021 election campaign. Media houses must submit a list to police of their politician guests as well as the time they are scheduled to be interviewed so guests will avoid arrest for flouting curfew guidelines.

Journalist property damaged

Journalists have had their equipment damaged and destroyed as well, according to the HRNJ.

They documented a recent incident where men broke into a television station van and smashed up equipment.

“It is extremely interesting that despite a heavy security presence around areas where the opposition candidates are campaigning, the same thugs would have an opportunity to wreak havoc on a well-branded media house van to that magnitude and no one was arrested, no investigation was conducted,” says Ssempala.

“You would expect that the president would be so incensed, and in fact demand an investigation,” he adds.

Civil society, election observers problematic for Museveni, too

Both local and international journalists are under fire, but civil society and foreign election observers have either not been invited to observe elections, banned from entering the country, or refused entry into the country.

Paul Bukenya, Uganda Electoral Commission spokesman, told RFI that 19 Ugandan and international organizations have been accredited and “some other applications are under process,” but would not release the list.

“Museveni’s certainly very suspicious of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the area of governance and rights,” says Frederick Golooba Mutebi, a Kampala-based independent analyst.

Those organizations believed to be talking to or liaising with opposition candidates are targeted.

“So far, some senior staff at one organization have been deported, or those who were outside the country at the time the decision was made are not allowed to return,” he says.

The European Union, a mainstay in election monitoring throughout the continent will not be present for the 14 January election.

An EU spokesman told RFI that they had not received an official invitation, so would not be observing the 2021 election. Similarly, the US-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), which had conducted training of Ugandan civil society groups in election observation, and had been invited to past elections, will not be observing either.

“There is a lot of mistrust on the side of the government; civil society is locked in a situation of inaction, because every action they take is regarded as either supporting the opposition or planning to frustrate the government in power, which is not necessarily true,” says Charity Ahimbisibwe, head of Citizen Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU).

US influences in Uganda

While a number of people who were interviewed for this article reflected that this election cycle has been worse for journalists compared to 2016, some believe that Museveni has pushed for a harder crackdown after he saw the lack of international response during the 2020 American election when US President Donald Trump made a number of false accusations during and after the November election.

“Many of the semi-authoritarian rulers are saying, ‘Look, you thought we are authoritarian, how come America, which is so democratic, is doing what Trump is doing?’ Julius Kiiza, professor of political science at Makerere University in Kampala tells RFI.

Although the Museveni regime has pre-empted this election by putting the repressive civil society law and registry in 2016 into motion, Kiiza contends that the government was spurred on by Trump’s actions.

“We are a developing country, we are poor. But how come this country that has all the systems and institutions, you find a president that is not willing to concede-- just like African illegitimate rulers, African dictators, or semi-authoritarian rulers,” says Kiiza, who notes that the international community was silent when Trump was making false statements on the election.

“It’s like Africa has exported an African dictator to the US,” he adds.

But not all US lawmakers are in agreement. Lawmaker Eliot Engel, US Representative (D-NY) and chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, wrote a pointed letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 9 December, calling for the US to respond to the attack on human rights, including a list of actions against political candidates and journalists.

“These violent incidents reflect a highly disturbing trajectory for the country, thus ensuring that the environment for general elections in January 2021 has been fundamentally tilted in favor of an incumbent who has been in power since 1986,” he wrote, referring to Museveni.

Engel called on Pompeo to re-examine all non-humanitarian aid to Uganda, and to slap sanctions and freeze assets of a number of Ugandan police and Armed Forces.

Journalists looking ahead

For now, journalists like Moses Bwayo say they are committed to doing their jobs covering the January election.

“And this news today, it doesn’t come as a surprise… we can only expect the worst, but as a journalist, we’ll continue to work,” says Bwayo.

He has filed his case against the police, but is still waiting for a case file number, more than one month after he was shot in the face.

“I’m Ugandan, this is the job I know how to do. For sure I’m going to continue doing my job, even if my license if revoked,” he added.

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