If you are a journalist working for independent media in Uganda, the police have probably summoned you for questioning and possibly even charged you in the courts. If not, you know colleagues who have. Over the years, it is newspaper and radio journalists who have faced the wrath of a duplicitous government – it preaches free speech and gleefully muzzles independent media at the same time. Now things are changing. The government is looking farther afield.
The police last week called in Mr. Timothy Kalyegira, owner of The Uganda Record, an online publication. The state is interested in his reports suggesting that al-Shabaab may have claimed responsibility for the deadly 7/11 bombings in Kampala but that does not make it true that they did the deed. In Mr. Kalyegira’s own words, his website makes the “insinuation or suggestion … that this could have been a state-orchestrated crime”. For that, detectives have not only interrogated him repeatedly, they have also searched his home and taken away his computer, his cell phone and other stuff. Why a man’s laptop and phone should be carried away for expressing an opinion defies logic. But not entirely. The investigators’ working theory seems to be that Mr. Kalyegira is working in concert with more sinister forces to trash the image of the Government of the Republic of Uganda. They want to know who his correspondents are.
“We are monitoring media by whatever description,” the officer in charge of the Media Crimes Department in the Uganda Police Force told this correspondent. Commissioner of Police Simon Kuteesa added: “It is not just the police. All national security organs are interested in media [content].”
Sure, but anyone who has read Mr. Kalyegira’s writings over the years would not bother with him, for the man loves being contrarian on just about every subject of national import. Besides, other Ugandans have also raised, although quietly, views similar to Mr. Kalyegira’s regarding the bombings. And after 9/11 in the United States, some Americans alleged that their government was behind the tragedy so as to find a reason to attack oil-rich Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and take control of the oil.
By going after Mr. Kalyegira, the government is lending credence to his claims. It is also helping spread them because now people are heading to the Uganda Record website to read the postings for themselves. If the government has nothing to hide, so the argument goes, it would let Mr. Kalyegira be. It would let his views, which he says are inspired by some unnamed Seer, compete with other views out there. He predicted apocalypse for the Great Lakes Region in 2008. No apocalypse came. Years ago the government tried unsuccessfully to shut down Radio Katwe. The website went on to run stories that make Mr. Kalyegira’s opinion pale completely in comparison. As of this week, that website has not been updated in more than 18 months. It is “disappearing” naturally.
The most significant aspect here is that the government is getting interested in what Ugandans are writing online – and it is doing something about it. The passing, in the immediate aftermath of the 7/11 bombings, of The Regulation of Interception of Communications Bill, will likely embolden the government to go after online work more aggressively. It will snoop around more, hacking into people’s emails in the name of ensuring national security.
Media observers in Uganda argue that the Kalyegira case is just the beginning. There will be more government interest in online content as more Ugandans start using the World Wide Web spurred by increased access to electricity and the presence of fibre optic technology, which is speeding up Internet connectivity and driving down prices. According to the Uganda Communications Commission, there were 27,590 Internet subscriptions with an estimated number of users standing at 2.8 million (9% of the population) in 2009 compared to 15,500 subscriptions and an estimated 1 million users in 2007. These numbers must be soaring given the raging market wars amongst service providers.
“The government has not had a systematic way of dealing with online content,” said Mr. J.B. Mayiga, the co-ordinator of the Uganda Media Development Foundation, a Kampala-based media training and advocacy body. “But the Kalyegira case maybe a precursor for something more concrete – a more specific law – because the government is not happy with people expressing themselves freely at any forum.”
Ms. Rachel Mugarura is one of Uganda’s foremost bloggers and says the events of last week may not readily have any chilling effect on online users. “I have no concerns,” she said. “There is very little political debate in the Ugandan blogosphere and there is no consistency.” She added that for many Ugandans, mostly younger urbanites, “blogging is an escape, so it is a little frivolous”. (Make your own assessment by visiting a website that aggregates Ugandan blogs).
For now, there may be merit in the government going after citizens’ online work in search of terrorists, and possibly paedophiles. But there is no merit in questioning someone and threatening him with sedition charges for openly expressing his views. The government is better off working efficiently to deliver goods and services, to respect human rights, to observe rule of law and to generally act in a manner that does not leave citizens ascribing evil to it.
On Tuesday, June 7, Charles Mwanguhya and I honoured a police invitation to help in their investigation of leading opposition leader Kizza Besigye for his role in the walk-to-work protests that rocked Kampala mainly in April. The protests, over rising fuel, food and commodity prices, started on April 11. A week earlier, Dr Besigye had appeared as a guest on KFM’s Hot Seat talk show hosted by Charles. I have been a regular panellist on the show since February 2008. Detective Felix Turihamwe of the Special Investigations Unit, watched over by Detective Balaam Bwengye, recorded our statements in the presence of our lawyer James Nangwala. Also present was Ms Anne Abeja-Muhwezi, the company secretary of Monitor Publications, owners of KFM radio station. Charles had his statement recorded first as I waited outside the building. Possibly because Charles had not offered much, Detective Turihamwe changed tack, our lawyer noted during my questioning. The officer mixed direct questions with making assertions and inviting me to respond. Below was the general flow of our exchange. It lasted some 45 minutes:
Det: Your name?
Me: Bernard Tabaire.
Det: Your age?
Me: Old enough to be summoned to the police. (Our lawyer and the detective quickly reminded me that even juveniles are summoned.) Okay, I’m close to 40.
Det: We are about the same age.
Me: Thanks for volunteering that info., but you are not writing that down, are you?
Det: Your place of residence?
Me: Bunga [in the Makindye Division of Kampala].
Det: Aah, that is a wealthy place!
Me: Yeah, I want to be near the rich so I can get rich by osmosis.
Det: I am sure you are not renting.
Det: Phone number?
Lawyer: You should stop asking that question. It is useless. He is Ugandan. (The detective proceeded to guess what my tribe was on the basis of my name and flunked.)
Det: You are the co-host of Hot Seat?
Me: I am a regular panellist.
Det: Not co-host?
Me: Panellist. But co-host, panellist, it doesn’t really matter.
Det: I am reliably informed that you are the one who invited Besigye for the show.
Me: That is incorrect.
Det: Who invited him?
Me: As a panellist, I do not invite guests.
Det: So who invited him?
Me: I believe there is a system through which guests are invited.
Det: Did he find you in the studio?
Me: Maybe he did, maybe he did not. Generally, though, I try to get there before the guests.
Det: So he found you in the studio?
Me: I believe so.
Det: Are you informed of who the guests would be in advance?
Det: And the subject of discussion, are you informed in advance?
Me: I am informed in advance so as to prepare.
Det: What did the debate centre on this time?
Me: Campaigns, elections – eh – voting, and the immediate aftermath.
Det: What questions did you ask, what answers did Besigye give?
Me: Listen to the recording or read the transcript that you already have.
Det (smiling): What did Besigye say were his future plans?
Me: Whatever he said is on the recording you have, on the transcript. (The trick was to get me to reveal what Besigye may have said off-air, during the commercial breaks.)
Det: This is the second time Besigye was appearing on Hot Seat since the February 18 elections.
Me: Ah, but I don’t remember. Maybe. I doubt it though. It’s like 2 months now – Jeez, I can’t recall. It was the first time, I believe.
Lawyer (interjects to save me from my rumbling): You don’t recall, that is your answer.
Me: I don’t recall.
All this time the detective was furiously scribbling away. At some point, without even raising his head away from the foolscap paper, he made a passing comment: “If you want to survive in Uganda today, don’t enter politics.” Was that meant as a warning to any of us? Did that mean he was taking our statements out of duty but otherwise he thinks Dr Besigye is being persecuted for simply being a politician, an ambitious one at that?
A bit of banter here and there followed. I was given the statement to read through and then sign. I obliged. End of business. But, hey, the cops were looking for any contradictions between my statement and Charles’ to see whether they could find a new line to pursue in their investigation of Dr Besigye. According to our lawyer, we did not contradict each other at all. The real purpose of the invite, though, was to explore the possibility of turning us, journalists, into state witnesses.
About the Author: Bernard Tabaire is ACME's Programmes Director. He is a former managing editor for weekend editions at the Monitor Publications in Kampala and also a columnist with the Saturday Monitor.
Press freedom defenders and journalists’ organisations in Uganda have petitioned parliament over the violence inflicted on journalists by the army and the police in recent months.
In an August 1 petition to the committee on defence and internal affairs, 10 organisations, including the African Centre for Media Excellence, cited incidents in which the security organs roughed up more than 30 journalists between April and July this year.
According to the petitioners, cases of violence included arbitrary arrests and detentions, beatings, targeted shootings, blocking accessibility to news scenes, and confiscation of equipment such as cameras and recorders.
The petitioners say that no action has been taken against police personnel and soldiers who, in their violent acts against the journalists, also violated their own disciplinary code. The petitioners therefore want the committee to summon the leadership of the police and the army to explain the conduct of their subordinates and to punish culprits with a view to stopping the crude treatment of journalists.
Cases cited in the petition
• March 2011: A journalist in Jinja lost a tooth after she was beaten by the police while covering a function involving politicians.
• April 14: Four journalists were roughed up by police and army personnel around Kampala. In Masaka, four journalists suffered physical assault by the UPDF while covering events in the municipality.
• May 12: Soldiers assaulted 8 journalists and confiscated their equipment on Entebbe Road while covering the return of the opposition leader, Dr Kizza Besigye. A journalist was also shot at that day.
• May 18: Cameras of journalists covering the eviction of people from a wetland were confiscated, and pictures and video footage deleted by police.
The petition also mentions a case of impersonation of journalists by security personnel. “In April, a man believed to be a police officer was caught by journalists wearing a WBS TV jacket posing as a cameraman. The station denied knowledge of the man.”
Quoting Article 221 of the Constitution – which provides that all security agencies have to protect, respect and promote human rights and freedoms as they perform their duties – the petitioners add that the “actions of the Uganda Police Force … and the Uganda People’s Defence Forces of removing tools from the Members of the Press clearly violated this right”.
Mr Wokulira Ssebaggala, the co-ordinator of Human Rights Network for Journalists who was among those who delivered the petition, said that members of parliament had asked for more evidence on the cases presented.
“We presented the evidence and we shall be at parliament again on Tuesday [August 9] when the police and army appear before the same committee to answer to some of the queries we have raised,” he said.
Mr Haruna Kanabi of the Independent Media Council Uganda led the team to parliament.
Three journalists were yesterday targeted by men in police uniform and their equipment destroyed as they were covering the arrest of Forum for Democratic Change leader, Dr Kizza Besigye.
Daily Monitor’s photojournalist Isaac Kasamani, WBS television’s William Ntege, and Red Pepper’s Nicholas Mwesigye were assaulted and suffered various injuries.
Mr Ntege’s video camera, which was destroyed, had just been replaced at Shs6.5 million by police which broke the first one during another incident.
“I was taking photographs of Dr Besigye as they brought him to (Central Police Station) CPS when a police officer in a blue uniform stood in front of me to obstruct me and ordered me to stop taking photographs,” Mr Kasamani said.
“As I pleaded, he slapped me hard on the left cheek with his right hand. Another officer standing behind me grabbed my neck from behind and pulled me down. I fell and hurt my right elbow. My camera was shattered beyond repair,” Mr Kasamani said.
Mr Kasamani’s attempts to file a complaint at CPS was frustrated by other police personnel who refused to allow him in.
Uganda Journalists Union and the Human Rights Network for Journalists yesterday issued statements condemning the attack on journalists.
“This is a total violation of media rights and freedom. These habitual acts of violence on media practitioners by the police are a clear indication that impunity is on the rise in this country,” said HRNJ-Uganda Programmes Coordinator Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala.
Uganda Journalists Union President Lucy Anyango Ekadu said: “Journalists have a duty to inform the public of what is going on in the country without fear or favour, and police ought to protect journalists in this noble cause rather than intimidate and [carry out] direct repression on them.”
The government’s closure of two privately owned Ugandan dailies and two radio stations entered day three today, May 22, with one of the newspapers beating the odds to print what its editors dubbed the “Freedom Issue”.
“Red Pepper is back where it started 12 years ago,” reads a post on the paper’s Facebook wall. “Printing from the ‘bush’. This is the ‘Freedom Issue’ it’s not our normal quality but pliz accept it.”
The Daily Monitor, the other paper that the police closed and turned off the presses, remained off the streets.
In a co-ordinated swoop on May 20, squadrons of armed police officers swarmed the offices of the two dailies in search of documents written by a senior military officer regarding the sensitive question of presidential succession.
The police cordoned off and labelled their offices crime scenes. They also said the media houses would remain closed until detectives found the documents and their source.
During the raid, transmission at Dembe FM and KFM was disconnected. The two stations share offices with the Daily Monitor, and all three media outlets are owned by Monitor Publications.
“Our offices are still locked up and occupied by policemen for the 3rd day, but our spirit is UNBROKEN,” The Red Pepper tweeted.
“Search at Monitor has resumed now,” Daily Monitor’s Brenda Banura said on Twitter. “Today they start an hour later than yesterday. They are searching the news room.”
The Uganda Human Rights Commission, a statutory agency, became the latest high-profile entity to criticise the government’s actions.
“The Act of closing the media houses amounted to a denial of information to the public and as such a violation of freedom of press contrary to Article 29(1)(a) of the Constitution and the right to seek, receive and impart information,” reads a section of the Commission’s statement.
The Commission further criticised the “method of operation and manner in which the media houses were cordoned off”, saying it breached the “fundamental principle of the inalienable right to a fair hearing”.
The US Mission in Kampala and Human Rights Watch have also criticised the government.
On Wednesday Internal Affairs minister Hillary Onek made a statement to Parliament about the media siege.
“I wish to clarify that Daily Monitor, KFM and Ddembe FM have not been closed,” he said. “They have been asked to halt operations to facilitate the search of their premises. The premises were declared a scene of crime.”
He said the media houses had been “asked to temporarily stop operations so that routine activities and traffic do not interfere with police work”.
However, the minister then added, “The search will go on until the letter and those other documents related to the letter are found.”
Debate on the minister’s statement was suspended after he was asked to produce the search warrant that police had used. Some MPs had said the police actions went beyond what was contained in the search warrant.
The newspapers’ troubles stem from a leaked letter published on May 7 in the Daily Monitor.
Written by Gen. David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza, the letter asks one of his subordinates to investigate claims that an assassination plot is afoot targeting senior government and military officials opposed to an alleged plan to have the president’s son succeed him in State House.
Gen. Sejusa, who is away in Europe and has been giving different days for his return, has since written other letters/releases, which the Red Pepper has carried, and which the police want plus the source.
In his initial letter, Gen. Sejusa, the co-ordinator of intelligence services, claims those to be framed and eliminated for their perceived opposition to the ‘Muhoozi Project’ are Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, Chief of Defence Forces Aronda Nyakairima and the general himself.
President Museveni’s son, a commander of the elite Special Forces, is Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
Last week a magistrate’s court ordered the Daily Monitor to provide the letter and reveal its source to the police, an order which the paper promptly appealed.
In a remarkable disregard of court process, the police launched their raid, which they say was sanctioned by a magistrate’s court, before the High Court ruled on the matter.
The Monitor lawyer criticised the police for securing various court orders without following up on previous ones.
Both media houses, located about 10km apart in Kampala, have their respective head offices and printing presses, in the same enclosure.
But while the Red Paper managed to print an edition today, the Daily Monitor stayed silent. Even its website had virtually no activity.
For its efforts, the Red Pepper got more harassment.
Mr Patrick Mugumya, one the Pepper’s senior managers, tweeted earlier Wednesday: “The cops here just seen a copy of RP ‘Freedom Issue’ now the phone calls & questions; ‘where did you print this from’.
Hours later he tweeted, “Police officers have arrested vendors and newspaper agents in Kampala found with today’s edition of Red Pepper ‘Freedom Issue’.”
The paper’s lead story had a banner headline saying, “THE TRUTH”, with one kicker reading: “Why Security Raided Red Pepper”. The second lead story spoke of President Museveni summoning the military’s high command to a meeting.
Meanwhile, reporters continued to express their disappointment on Facebook and Twitter over the closure.
“Mr. President, the press is not the enemy. Please order your men off Daily Monitor and Red Pepper premises,” wrote Mr Dennis Muhumuza, a Daily Monitor reporter, on his Facebook wall.
“If journalists can be treated like this because of Sejusa’s letter, how would the government deal with the author if he returned to Uganda?” Daily Monitor photojournalist Rachel Mabala opined on Facebook.
The rights commission asked the police to “expeditiously complete the search exercise so as to allow normality to return in the media houses”.
Today’s stories about the siege