In raiding two national newspapers and two radio stations on Monday, May 20, the Ugandan government launched its largest media crackdown yet.
Not since the closure of several radio stations in one go in September 2009 has the Yoweri Museveni government, in power since 1986, engaged in this sort of egregious attack on media freedom.
In a co-ordinated swoop just before noon, squadrons of armed police officers swarmed the offices of the Daily Monitor and Red Pepper, which are about 10 kilometres apart, and ordered all employees to step away from their workstations.
The police raid, lasting hours, is part of investigations to find the source and copies of documents written by a senior military officer regarding the sensitive question of presidential succession.
Unless they can find a brave-enough private printer, both newspapers are unlikely to appear on the streets on Tuesday morning. They will, however, publish online.
The police cordoned off and labelled their offices crime scenes. Both media houses, headquartered in Kampala, have their respective head offices and printing presses in the same enclosure.
A statement from the Daily Monitor spoke of 50 armed men in police and civilian attire who entered the publication’s offices with a search warrant and “blocked all exits”.
The statement said that instead of “carrying out the search, the armed men disabled the printing press, computer servers and radio transmission”.
Dembe FM and KFM, which belong to the Monitor Publications, publishers of the Daily Monitor, are the stations whose transmission was disconnected. The paper and the radio stations share premises.
“The intention was to prevent Monitor from broadcasting on radio and printing its newspapers,” the statement further said.
Police publicist Judith Nabakooba said investigators were not trying to antagonise the media but only looking for information.
“We are acting within the law,” she told a media briefing. “Our mandate is very clear: to investigate and detect crime.”
She said the search would continue until they find the documents. “If the information is not gotten and we need more time, the place can be cordoned off and the search continues the next day.”
But the next day could easily turn into several days, with police claiming they are yet to find what they want.
When the police last conducted a similar raid on the Monitor, on October 10, 2002, the paper remained shut and under armed police guard for nearly a week.
Back then there was no social media to speak of. This raid, however, was covered closely via Facebook and Twitter as it unfolded.
Published on May 7 in the Daily Monitor, a letter by Gen. David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza 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.
In his 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.
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.
“They wanted the originals and the sources of the press releases,” said Mr Arinaitwe Rugyendo, one of the founders of Red Pepper. “They shut down everything. Tomorrow we shall not publish. It is a bad situation.”
The raid came on the day the tabloid, known for printing saucy pictures and stories, unveiled a new look to mark a rebranding toward more mainstream journalism.
Last week a magistrate’s court ordered the Daily Monitor to provide the letter that started it all and reveal its source to the police, an order which the paper promptly appealed.
In a remarkable violation of the rule of law, the police launched their raid, which they say was sanctioned by another magistrate’s court, before the High Court ruled on the matter.
Human rights activists protested the police action outside Daily Monitor offices. Some had cello tape across their mouths, indicating a gagging of free speech.
“We see a systematic approach to the abuse of media freedom orchestrated many times by false allegations, pretences and prejudices,” said Mr Livingstone Sewanyana, the head of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative.
“The media in this country has continued to be harassed yet the duty of the state is to protect them,” he said.
Until now the largest government crackdown on media had been the closure in September 2009 of four radio stations. The stations were closed in the wake of riots in Kampala over a standoff between the central government and the Kingdom of Buganda.
Information minister Mary Karooro Okurut defended the police raid on the Monitor and Red Pepper. “Police went through the due legal process and secured a court order – issued by a court of competent jurisdiction,” she said.
But civil society activists condemned the police action.
Mr Wokulira Ssebagala, the co-ordinator of the Human Rights Network for Journalists, said: “If they had found these journalists tried to write something which is not real, they should have taken them to court. The rule of law should have taken its course.”
ACME described the raid as “an abuse of power and the law, and a blatant violation of the Constitution”.
“The police action, itself a blatant disregard of court process and therefore rule of law, appears to be meant to send a signal to the Ugandan media and the public that critical reporting and commentary on sensitive affairs of government will not be tolerated,” ACME said in a press release. “We must all stand up against this intimidation and wanton violation of the rights to free expression.”
In reference to runaway corruption in Uganda, Ms Jackie Asiimwe-Mwesige, a human rights activist, said: “Don’t surround the media, go surround thieves.”
Mr Don Wanyama, Daily Monitor’s managing editor, who has been questioned by police several times over the letter, said the paper would not be intimidated.
“The information they are looking for was published in the newspapers; that’s what they should use,” he said. “Beyond that we shall never disclose our sources. It does not matter how much we are threatened or intimidated.”
A statement from the Black Monday Movement, a civil society coalition against corruption, said the police should “pre-occupy themselves with investigating the substance of the concerns raised by the general.”
The search, which went on at both papers until evening, will resume on Tuesday. It is unclear whether any journalist will be allowed into the premises.