Ugandans and the media fraternity have been urged to speak out whenever they notice abuses to freedom of the press.
The call was made my US ambassador to Uganda Deborah Malac while speaking at the launch of a book by Uganda Press Photo Awards (UPPA).
“We all need to speak out when we see threats to the freedom of the press because if we don’t, we won’t see anything change…” she said on Tuesday, 5 December 2017 at The Square in Kampala. “We all need to be champions of a strong and free media…we are stronger together.”
The appeal comes on the heels of the arrest and detention of eight senior Red Pepper journalists and the general constricting of the freedom of media space in Uganda. The Red Pepper staff, in detention since 21 November 2017, have been charged with, among others, offensive communication and publishing information “prejudicial to national security” after printing a story the previous day, titled, M7 plotting to overthrow Kagame – Rwanda”.
Ms. Malac said: “Press freedom is under assault in Uganda, and reversing this troubling and deeply disturbing trend, requires action from all of us.”
She said the US Embassy recently held trainings for journalists in Mbarara and Gulu and the resounding complaints were about threats, arrests and beatings.
“If government believes that media stories contain falsehoods, there are certain ways through the courts to challenge those stories rather than arresting or harassing journalists, or shutting down media outlets,” she said.
Mr Michael O’hagan, a journalist and member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Uganda, underscored the challenges photo and video journalists in Uganda face.
He said: “Practicing journalism in Uganda can be challenging. Photo and video journalists particularly work on the front lines taking great risks to capture compelling images so that viewers can understand and interpret it.”
“The government of Uganda must stop using arrests and prosecutions as a means of intimidating journalists.”
Abubaker Lubowa, an award winning photo journalist with Daily Monitor recounted countless tales of beatings and intimidation, including being banned from covering President Museveni.
“Whereas a writer can be unnoticed, photojournalism is war front business. Extremely risky, especially under our Ugandan circumstances, where human rights abuse is the order of the day,” Abubaker said.
He added: “Like many photo journalists here, I have been arrested, beaten and threatened with harm. I was arrested with colleagues in the aftermath of the disputed 2016 presidential elections in Kasangati when we had gone to cover the house arrest of Dr. Kizza Besigye. I was bundled into the notorious “BESIGYE BLUE VAN” and I was punched by one of the policemen in it so that I could change a seat.”
Abubaker recounted a recent incident when security operatives forced him out of court “on gun point” while a colleague was ordered to delete photos of suspects in the murder of deceased police spokesperson Andrew Felix Kaweesi.
“I helplessly witnessed the spraying of pepper into the eyes of my colleague Isaac Kasamani by a plain clothed man who was working with police and he walked away freely.”
He appealed to fellow photographers not to be cowed but to use their cameras to tell stories especially if they cannot act in the face of assaults.
Ms. Malac on the other hand urged journalists to undergo further training so that they can do their work professionally. She also called for responsible and accurate reporting.
“Reporters and editors alike must take more responsibility to ensure [that] reporting is fair and factual,” she said. “Journalists overall should do a better job at fact checking and ensuring that you quote officials or those you interview, accurately.”
Mr O’hagen also emphasized the issue of ethical journalism, not just to uphold professional practice but as a shield against abuse to media freedom.
“It’s vital that journalistic ethics and standards are upheld, and we the press core should hold each other to account, when we fall short of best practice.”
The UPPA, founded in 2012, launched a publication that documents and celebrates the first five years of the association. It showcases winning photos and essays.
Ms. Mereike Le Pelley, the resident representative of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Uganda (FES), said they acknowledge and appreciate outstanding work of photojournalists in Uganda. The UPPA was founded by Anna Kucma, together with FCAU and FES.
Ms. Pelly said: “This publication doesn’t only showcase many of the winning pictures and puts the subjects of these pictures into greater context but also, by doing so, the publication paints a vivid picture of contemporary Ugandan society.”
The essays in the publication touch on the topics of freedom of expression, the history of photojournalism in Uganda, public image of photography in Uganda, among others.