Fresh from being sworn in as president for another five years, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni has described both local and international media as “enemies” at a time when local journalists are protesting brutal assaults and harassment by security forces.
In a May 17 statement to the media, President Museveni took issue with the media for their continued coverage of anti-government protests dubbed ‘walk to work’.
The protests were called by the opposition to rally the population over the government’s failure to address rising food and fuel prices at a time when public expenditure is running out of control.
“The media houses, both local and international, such as al-Jazeera, BBC, NTV, The Daily Monitor, etc, that cheer on these irresponsible people, are enemies of Uganda’s recovery and they will have to be treated as such,” Mr Museveni said. “Why do they not also report the negative acts of these elements?”
It was not the first time the president was faulting journalists for focusing on what he calls negative reporting. At a press conference at his country home earlier in the month, he had blamed the media for not reporting on positive developments elsewhere in the country.
Following Museveni’s warning this week, the outgoing Minister for Information, Kabakumba Masiko, told BBC’s Network Africa programme that Ugandan laws would be amended to deal with any journalist who behaves as an “enemy of the state”.
She said, “If you look at the way these media houses have been reporting what has been going on in our country, you realise they were inciting people and trying to show that Uganda is now ungovernable, is under fire as if the state is about to collapse.”
Early last year the minister tabled before Cabinet the proposed Press and Journalist Amendment Bill, which would among other things create the new publication offence of “economic sabotage”.
The proposed law would give an all powerful Media Council, the statutory regulator, the power to revoke the licence of any media house that publishes “material that amounts to economic sabotage”.
The bill does not define what would constitute economic sabotage, but proposes that any person who contravenes the provision should face a sentence of up to two years in prison.
Media organisations and human rights groups have attacked the Bill and called on the government to abandon it.
Ugandan journalists and commentators are now saying that recent attacks by security forces on journalists could have been encouraged by the President and his government’s attitude towards the media.
Writing on Facebook, one journalist said, “Now we know why the security agents whipped journalists covering Dr Besigye’s procession. Going by President Museveni’s description of the media as ‘enemies of Uganda’s recovery’, and his vow to ‘treat’’ journalists as such, the relentless whipping could only have been sanctioned by an order ‘from above’.”
Meanwhile, journalists have rejected a request by government asking them to lift a media blackout on covering official government, police and army functions.
The May 16th meeting which was held between the Minister of Defense, Dr. Crispus Kiyonga and journalists at the army head office at Mbuya hill was called to initiate dialogue with the journalists to get a way forward on working together more amicably.
However, the journalists threatened to walk out of the meeting and instead demanded for meaningful dialogue with more government officials at a neutral venue where they could be able to freely express their feelings.
About 10 journalists were openly beaten by security operatives, some of them in uniform, while others had their cameras and recorders confiscated and the data later deleted when they covering the return of opposition leader Kizza Besigye from Nairobi on the same day that Museveni was sworn in.
During the meeting with the army, the journalists under their various umbrella organizations rejected Kiyonga’s suggestions and insisted government first apologizes in writing for the torture meted out on them during last week’s coverage of Besigye’s return from Nairobi.
The journalists have also demanded that government commits itself in writing to reign in on security operatives to stop harassing journalists in the course of their work and to punish the responsible officers who conducted most of the beatings and the harassment. The journalists presented to Kiyonga video footage of the officers who were caught by the cameras and can be easily identified.
The journalists said that in order to have a meaningful dialogue, they wanted Inspector General of Police, Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, the Minister of Security, Amama Mbabazi and the commander of the military police to attend the meeting.
With more pressure from the journalists threatening to walk out of the meeting, Kiyonga agreed to call off the meeting and have a new date fixed for “proper dialogue”.
Additional reporting by Charles Odongtho, URN