The Lira-based Unity FM station which was closed for allegedly inciting violence during protests over the killing of an 11-year-old boy, is yet to reopen, 10 days later. Two men of Indian origin are accused of killing the boy on November 9, sparking off protests in Lira District.
The station was taken off air on November 17 and six of its staff members arrested. The District Police Commander Joel Tubanone said the staff members, who include journalists, have been charged with inciting violence.
“They mobilized a team of people who went and caused some havoc where the kid was being buried. They called on people and even brought a vehicle that picked people from the station and it was hired by them,” he said.
According to the Human Rights Network for Journalists, the arrested staff who were later released, included Charles Odongo, a technical director; Kenneth Opio, an assistant station manager; Felix Ogwang, a presenter; Moses Alwala, a news reporter; Micheal Ogwal, a news anchor and Aron Ebwola, a producer.
Tubanone said the police was still conducting investigations and waiting for the final decision from Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) – the broadcast regulator.
The UCC Act spells out minimum broadcasting standards, stating that a broadcaster shall ensure that any programme which is broadcast does not promote the culture of violence or ethnical prejudice among the public.
Unity FM Station Director Jimmy Uhuru said the staff, including him, were given police bond and have been reporting to the police every day since they were arrested. Mr Uhuru insists that the journalists were doing their job by covering what was going on.
“To them, that becomes inciting the public,” he said and wondered why the police didn’t instead ask the radio presenters to play music instead of shutting the station down.
Pamela Ankunda, UCC’s head of public and international relations, said the regulator had picked recordings of the programmes that aired during the riots and was in the process of reviewing them.
“We can have a discussion on the way forward after [the review]. We are hoping it is very soon; at least by this week,” Ms Ankunda said.
Mr Uhuru was, however, worried that the review would take longer and that the station might remain closed for months.
In September 2009, during the Buganda riots, UCC shut down four Luganda-speaking radio stations—Radio Sapientia, Radio Two (Akaboozi ku Bbiri), Radio Ssuubi, and Central Broadcasting Station (CBS) for allegedly inciting violence. CBS was opened a year later under tough conditions while the others were opened a few months later.
Ms Ankunda said that shutting down a station, an act widely condemned by media right activists, is a preventative method.
“Our first course of action is, do you accept liability? If so, what do you want to do about it? Do you want to train your presenters?”
She added that UCC normally doesn’t fine or revoke licenses during such cases but gives the station a chance to take action.
“Some do accept responsibility and take their own action. Some prefer to go to court. Some say yes, there was a breach and we are going to take such and such measures,” she said.
The station, which Mr Uhuru says has a listenership of up to 2.8m people, is losing between Shs1m and Shs2m in revenue every day.
“We as a media station we are also a business. When you lock me down, I also lose business. We also pay taxes. We employ over 47 workers,” he said.
As UCC reviews the recording, Mr Uhuru says he is in talks with the district security officials over reopening the station but in the end, UCC will have the final say.
HOW IT STARTED
The Daily Monitor reported that Okello and his friends were on their way home from school on November 9 when the two suspects tried to lure them using biscuits and Shs2,000. When the pupils declined the offer, a chase ensued, during which Okello got trapped by a barbed wire. The suspects, who have since been arrested, allegedly pounced on the primary five pupil and strangled him.
Further trouble ensued when police read an autopsy report indicating that Okello had died of heart-related complications. During burial on November 17, Daily Monitor also reported that police fired bullets to disperse angry mourners who wanted to lynch Lira District Chairman Alex Oremo Alot who was scheduled to deliver a speech at Okello’s burial.
The media reporting around these events, is what got Unity FM and its reporters in trouble.