There is no freedom even though diversity
In 2021, Reuters photojournalist James Akena announced his retirement from journalism after being beaten by a Ugandan soldier while covering the #freeBobiWine protests of August 20, 2018. The award-winning journalist announced his decommissioning on Twitter as follows: “The Ugandan army has bowed me and forced me to quit journalism.”
Akena put her hands up, just holding her camera, they beat him until someone came and rescued him. He suffered multiple head injuries due to the beatings, a broken finger, and a slipped spine as well as a clot on the back of his head. As a result, he was confined to a wheelchair.
The commander of the Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. David Muhoozi, apologized for the behavior of the soldiers. Akena then sued the government for 27 thousand dollars in damages.
Lucy Ekadu, President of the Uganda Journalists Union (UJU), said, “Uganda has more media outlets than before, but this does not mean that the media is free.“ he adds, “Journalists are held accountable for their work, laws are made to block the path of the media, so there is no freedom, even if there is diversity.”
Daily Monitor’s senior photojournalist Abubaker Lubowa, who is also fighting for the presidency of the Uganda Journalists Association (UJA), notes that it is difficult to be a journalist in Uganda, saying: “Politicians from the government to the local authorities violate the rights of journalists. When you write negative news about the State Assembly, you expect them to detain you. Politicians and security forces are the biggest violators of media freedom. Then ordinary people don’t want journalists to write stable stories. When they call you for news, they don’t want you to talk to the other party to verify the news. It is also difficult to access information. We should have strong laws that enforce media freedom. Then the security personnel and the general public should be sensitive about how the media operates.”
However, the Ugandan Government says that they consider the media an integral actor in the governance and development of Uganda. That is why the government is acting deliberately not creating an environment that allows for free, vibrant and responsible media.
THEY CUT FLESH FROM MY TIGHTS WITH PLIERS
In February 2022, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, a Ugandan writer who spent about a month in prison after being arrested for criticizing President Museveni, was tortured while in custody and then left the country. He described the torture he suffered: “They used pliers. They ripped the flesh off my thighs and everywhere. I thought I was dead that day. I had considered renouncing my Ugandan citizenship.”
The cases of Akena and Rukirabashayca sum up the difficult conditions that media workers in Uganda have been subjected to criticizing the government and exposing the truth.
In recent years, many journalists have been targeted by security forces, especially during protests and elections. And many of them do not have the means to seek justice in court like Akena. Instead, they allow themselves to be compromised by their perpetrators.
During the August 13, 2018 by-elections, security forces attacked and assaulted journalists on live TV while reporting on the events in Arua. Journalists Herbert Zziwa and Ronald Muwanga were attacked, detained and later appeared before a judge on charges of inciting violence and damaging property.
Many of them are still dealing with serious health problems as a result of beatings by the police and the military during the #FreeBobiWine protests. During the election period, the government required all journalists to reapply for accreditation.
The chairman of the Ugandan government’s Media Council, Paul Ekochu, said that the review is needed to guarantee the safety of journalists.
In an unprecedented move, the Uganda Media Council has revoked the accreditation of all foreign journalists residing in the country, declaring that they must reapply within seven days. A significant number of foreign journalists have either been expelled from the country or banned from entering the country.
Then on December 5, 2020, the government deported CBC journalists Margaret Evans, Lily Martin and cameraman Jean-Francois Bisson. President Museveni and his supporters have claimed that foreign journalists are in favor of the opposition candidate Bobi Wine.
VIOLENCE AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY
Journalists also faced difficult conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic. During the Covid-19 bans, various incidents occurred that the police also assaulted journalists.
On July 30, 2021, police attacked Iceta Scovin Metedio, a reporter for the Daily Monitor newspaper and NTV Uganda, who was taking photos of police using force to disperse people after the curfew began. Iceta was attacked despite wearing a vest that showed him that he is a journalist. In addition, police officers confiscated his camera and deleted the photos he took.
In another incident, police officers punched Radio Mityana reporter Patrick Bukenya for violating the curfew.
Journalists who follow the parliament claim that they are living under threats from the parliament because they are doing negative news about the legislature. Some apply self-censorship to survive.
A senior manager of the Ugandan Parliamentary Press Association, who did not want to be named, said: “We have decided to censor our own articles, otherwise we cannot escape the wrath of the speaker.” he says that the ‘carrot and stick’ approach is used, which means rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior.
In late January 2023, veteran journalist Simon Muyanga Lutaaya and two colleagues Adam Mahad Kungu and Lukia Mpoza were fired from BABA TV, where they worked, because of their reporting on the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.
While the state restricts media freedom and freedom of expression, internal strife in the media world has made the situation worse. The government allowed the media to make decisions on the amendment to the Press and Journalists Act of 1995. However, the struggle between the press organizations is making the process in vain.
While journalists continue to fight each other, the government continues to get ahead of the media in bringing the sector to its knees. The government has made new decisions under the name of the ‘Computer Misuse’ law to silence online media, which it considers the greatest threat.
Esther Naqqazi is a freelance science and technology journalist. Uganda ScieGirl blogger; media trainer; founder of Uganda Health Journalists Association (HEJNU).