Viewers of NTV Uganda were glued to the screen on 13 August 2018 as journalist Herbert Zziwa reported live about the chaos that had erupted in Arua town, North West of Kampala. The political wrestle for Arua Municipality MP seat that had become vacant following the killing of its incumbent Ibrahim Abiriga had become hot. As Zziwa updated the world about the situation in Arua during the 7 p.m. bulletin, the screen suddenly went dark. The country would later find out that he and other journalists were arrested and detained by police.
The symbolism of that incident was stark – that the media, whose role is to shine ‘light’ in society through information-sharing, can lose that torch if the state so decides. On 20 September 2018, the light and darkness phenomenon reoccurred as Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi (aka Bobi Wine) returned from the United States where he had gone to receive specialised treatment three weeks ago. Bobi Wine was among those arrested in the Arua by-election fracas, tortured (a claim government denies) and is battling treason charges.
The police was categorical in stating that processions, assemblies and rallies would not be allowed as Bobi Wine touches down at Entebbe airport in the afternoon. Only a few selected members of his family would be permitted there. The heavy deployment of police and army in Bobi Wine’s Wakiso neighborhood, part of Greater Kampala, as well as Entebbe, showed how serious they were.
While the police didn’t openly say the media had been banned from covering the MP’s return, some journalists – armed with cameras, notebooks and pens — didn’t get a chance to use their tools of trade to shine the ‘light’ that their profession demands.
Daily Monitor photographer Michael Kakumirizi and his colleagues Derrick Wandera and Paul Adude were among the journalists blocked from covering the legislator’s return, according to their editor Yasiin Mugerwa.
Police at Kisubi Police Post informed them that an officer would arrive from Entebbe to give them a go ahead.
“We waited for two hours to be cleared in vain,” Kakumirizi told ACME on phone.
According to Kakumirizi, the OC Station of Entebbe Police Station Timothy Ndawula later arrived and said the journalists can only get accreditation from the Uganda Media Centre to cover the legislator’s arrival. The journalists were packed in a police vehicle, an escort car in tow, and driven back to Kampala.
The Uganda Journalists Association (UJA) and Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ –Uganda) listed other blocked journalists as: Henry Lubulwa (URN), Charles Katabalwa (Radio Sapientia), Dianah Kibuuka (CBS Emanduso), Eve Muganga (Daily Monitor), Joel Ssenyonyi (NTV), Julius Luwemba (New Vision), Moses Kyeyune (Daily Monitor), Siraje Kiberu (Kingdom TV) and Ssematimba Bwegiire (Radio Simba).
Unlike her colleagues who were blocked at Kisubi, 16 kilometers from Entebbe airport, CBS’s Dianah Kibuuka managed to go to the airport up to the arrivals lounge. She said that the Civil Aviation Authority public relations office cleared her and three other journalists to wait at the lounge, but instructed them not to take photos or wander off to other areas of the airport. All was well as they waited until two police officers, one only identified as Adenga, arrived and confiscated their cameras and recorders. They argued that the journalists were not supposed to be at the arrivals’ lounge, let alone with cameras and recorders.
“They told us to follow them, only to realise that we were being taken to the Aviation Police Station. From there, they told us we were under preventive arrest until Bobi Wine arrives and leaves the airport,” she told ACME.
For two-and-a-half hours, the journalist pleaded with the police officers to let them go in vain. Instead, the officers quizzed them on how they went past airport check points with cameras and recorders undetected.
Once the police had picked up Bobi Wine and driven him to his home, the journalists were released without charge. “They offered us a police car but we refused. We told them we knew where we had come from. So, they followed us with their patrol car until we were out of the airport area,” Diana added.
However, in a statement, Police Public Relations Officer Emilian Kayima said that no journalist was arrested.
“…there were allegations of media personalities arrested. This is not absolutely true. Some of them were questioned in accordance with the set guidelines. All are all free (sic), going about their lawful businesses normally.”
In a statement, HRNJ-Uganda’s Robert Sempala, said that the journalists were arrested and their gadgets confiscated. He also pointed fingers at Uganda Communications Commission for stopping a radio programme midway.
“…a mid-morning radio program Ekitanganza hosted by Richard Lubwama was stopped half way by the Uganda Communications Commission(UCC) who stormed the Nsambya based station [Radio Sapienta] in the UCC van. UCC had earlier banned all live coverage of the return of the legislator…”
Mr Sempala decried the difficulty with which the media operate.
“The media environment in the country has continued to shrink since the recent Arua by-elections.”
He called upon the government to allow the media to do its work, to unconditionally release all journalists and to “let media houses cover the news of Bobi Wine without undue interference, since his return is not illegal.”
“We also appeal to the journalists to remain vigilant and professional in the work at such heightened political situations.”
Earlier, reports circulated on social media that the management of Delta TV had issued a notice to its staff not to do live coverage of Bobi Wine’s return and for presenters to avoid making statements about the legislator on air.
In a statement, UJA Secretary for Information Ronald Kabuye asked UCC to refrain from issuing verbal directives to media managers and ordering them to stop covering Bobi Wine’s return or the mere mention of his name by broadcast journalists.
He said UCC should issue lawful and formal directives and to allow the public to enjoy its right of access to information through the media.
“We continue to condemn such beastly acts against journalists,” Mr Kabuye said.