BY DERRICK WANDERA & MARIAM NAMAKULA
During the 2021 presidential elections when the reports on journalists became prominently featured in both local and international media, the leadership of police was categorical on their position not to show remorse to the journalists they had assaulted.
“If you ask me whether I am going to apologise for beating journalists, my answer is no and I will not apologise. It is not the police that are attacking the journalists, it is actually them that are trying to portray the police to be against the public and government itself. We shall continue to beat you for as long as we see that you are heading into fire,” Mr Martins Okoth Ochola, the Inspector General of Police said in 2021 during a press conference.
At that time, several journalists had been either assaulted or arrested by police as they covered the campaigns, especially of the opposition candidates.
Mr Ashraf Kasirye a journalist with Ghetto TV had been shot at by a canister and suffered a ruptured skull, Mr Daniel Lutaaya who was covering for NBS TV suffered a broken back, Mr Ali Mivule of NTV had been shot at by a teargas canister on his lower left thy, Ms Culton Scovia Nakamya of BBS had been detained and quizzed, Ms Dorothy Nalumansi, a freelance journalist was arrested and detained for three days while Mr Derrick Wandera of Daily Monitor had been arrested and put in the cells for several hours at Kalangala Police Station.
In the aftermath of the elections, while opposition politician, Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine delivered a petition on human rights violations against his supporters, journalists were beaten and sustained life-threatening injuries.
Mr John Cliff Wamala of NTV sustained head injuries, Ms Josephine Namakumbi and Mr Joseph Sabiti who were reporting for NBS TV all suffered severe injuries after they were beaten and their clothes torn. Ms Irene Abalo of Nation Media Group to date moves on crutches after his foot was broken by the security personnel.
Others included; Kitimbo Thomas of NBS TV, Timothy Murungi and Henry Ssekanjako both from New Vision, Alice Naluggya (BTM), Nicholas Bamulanzeki (Sanyu FM) RashidaNakayi (Galaxy FM), Lawrence Kitatta and Shamim Nabakooza of Record TV among others.
On Agust 20, 2018 while covering city riots, photojournalist James Akena was captured on camera by colleagues being battered by Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) soldiers in downtown Kampala.
It is upon some of these incidents and background that many of the media practitioners and experts have indicated that the law protecting journalists had been thrown through the window.
Mr Robert Ssempala, the Executive Director of Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ) says that for example the current Anti-Homosexual Bill imposes very high charges on journalists, say imprisonment to five years, revocation of an operating license or ten years and a fine of Shs1 Billion or all suggest how it is a crime for one to practice journalism in the country.
“Globally, the walls of censorship have been collapsing and opening up the world through social media to break a lot of information unlike Uganda that’s trying to close this space which was such a major highlight as the country celebrated the press Freedom Day this year,” Ssempala says adding that, “The fact that many media houses are not at liberty to fully express themselves or even give space to the non-consenting voices means a lot to the democracy since freedom of expression with the media is the sole driver of other rights and therefore without a conducive operating space other rights are also not enjoyed.”
The Press and Journalist Act Commencement of 1995 provides for the freedom of the press as it establishes a council responsible for the regulation of mass media and to establish an institute of journalists of Uganda.
The country joins the rest of the world to commemorate the world press Freedom Day under the theme “Protecting Freedoms of Expression in Uganda as a Driver For All Other Human Rights,” comes at a time when there has been an increase in the use of the law to criminalize the works of independent, critical and professional media in Uganda.
Experts say the Computer Misuse Amendment 2022 and the recently signed Bill by the president of the Anti-Homosexuality 2023 seem to suggest that the existing laws are non-functional.
Media freedom, free speech and freedom of expression remain under attack in many parts of the world, as do journalists with reports indicating that at least 67 journalists and media workers killed last year -according to the Committee to Protect Journalists – the highest number since 2018 and almost 50 percent higher than in 2021.
According to Reporters Without Borders, another watchdog, some 533 journalists were imprisoned in 2022, up from 488 the year before.
Addressing the media on Tuesday in a joint presser, Crispin Kaheru, Commissioner Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) also called upon the duty bearers to view journalists as partners in the fight against crime and barriers to development.
“More importantly, all state actors needed to consistently prioritize the protection and justice of Journalists as well as raise awareness about the crucial role that diverse and independent media plays in facilitating inclusive development,” Mr Kaheru says.
Peter Otaayi, a representative from the Uganda Media Sector Working Group, also added that besides the unhealthy guidelines that are imposed by the media regulatory entities such as Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), a lot of journalists were not well conversant with the media laws and ethics and thus putting themselves at risk was doing their job.
Mr Gabriel Buule, a vocal journalist with the Nation Media Group says, “I am worried that the third arm of government (parliament) has spear-headed the war against press freedom by making it a tendency to craft bills with dubious clauses that infringe on Press freedom.”
According to Buule, every journalist needed to fiercely fight for Press Freedom using nonviolent channels, but also remind law makers that freedom of the press is codified in multiple documents that set international standards and that neither politicians nor government should interfere with this freedom or censor media that’s critical of state power.