Journalists, police in scuffles as siege on newspapers continues

The widely condemned closure of media houses in Uganda entered day nine on Tuesday, May 28, with dramatic scenes involving scuffles between the police and protesting journalists.
Two WBS TV reporters, Mr Williams Ntege and Mr Mulindwa Mukasa, were arrested during the protest, which lasted about three hours outside the Daily Monitor head offices on 8th Street in Kampala.
The police declared the premises of the Daily Monitor and the Red Pepper tabloid scenes of crime and shut them down on May 20 to search for documents written by a senior military officer regarding the politically sensitive issue of presidential succession. The police were also looking for the source that passed the documents to the media houses. Sealed off as well for allegedly being within the precincts of a scene of crime are KFM and Dembe FM, radio stations that share premises and a parent company with Daily Monitor.
Tired of waiting for the police to lift their siege, the journalists marched to the Daily Monitor offices mid-morning to protest the government’s high-handed actions, which have already attracted widespread local and international condemnation.
The siege and closure were aimed at retrieving a letter and related documents written by Gen. David Sejusa, the co-ordinator of intelligence services, alleging an assassination plot against those opposed to the president’s son taking over power from his father.
The general, who is conveniently visiting Europe, said he was one of those targeted for elimination and his leaked letter was instructing the head of internal security to investigate the allegations.
With copies of newspapers, a wooden cross and a piece of bark cloth, the journalists vowed to camp outside the Daily Monitor offices all day to “mourn” the closure. Bark cloth symbolises mourning in Buganda culture.
Their stay was however short-lived.
A war of words broke out between the journalists and the police, with each telling the other they had no right being there.
“Move away from here; this is a crime scene,” police officers told the journalists.
“You are here illegally, the search warrant was withdrawn,” the journalists fired back.
On May 22, the Daily Monitor secured a court order telling police to vacate the premises for overstepping their search mandate, but the police have since defied it.
Kampala North Metropolitan Commander Sam Omalla later told the protesters that the court order was “wrong”.
“On behalf of the majority, this court order is wrong,” he said. “We can put it aside and work for the benefit of the majority.” He did not explain what he meant by “majority”.
Speaking after receiving his fourth star as an army general on May 27, police chief Kale Kayihura said it was irregular that the same court that issued the search warrant was now backtracking on it. “We are challenging it in court,” he said.
At the temporary Daily Monitor offices at Crown House in Kampala’s CBD, Managing Director Alex Asiimwe told his staff there was hope. “Pretty soon all will be well,” he said. “Reason is beginning to prevail and soon we shall resume work.”
Back on 8th street, heated arguments led to scuffles with the police confiscating the cross and bark cloth and tearing to pieces the copies of Daily Monitor and Red Pepper that the protesters carried.
“We are mourning because you are curtailing our freedom,” protest leader Wokulira Ssebagala said. “We are telling government they have done enough. We cannot sit in our newsrooms comfortably when our colleagues are suffering. We shall be here until they re-open.”
For his efforts, Mr Ssebagala, the co-ordinator of Human Rights Network for Journalists, was detained and released a short while later, but without his camera.
Mr Ntege of WBS TV was beaten by a police officer several times using a baton, while Ms Remmy Bahati, a reporter with NBS TV, was involved in a fight with a policewoman who attempted to force her to leave.
“My whole body aches,” Mr Ntege said before he was eventually arrested together with Mr Mulindwa and taken away.
To disperse the protesters, police lobbed teargas canisters into their midst. They kept regrouping and returning until anti-riot police, all kitted up, swung into action.
The journalists have promised to protest again on Wednesday.

About Grace Natabaalo

Grace Natabaalo is a programme assistant at the African Centre for Media Excellence.

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