State-led intimidation threatens media freedom ahead of elections

Freedom of the press in Uganda is deceptive. Print journalists in the country’s capital, Kampala, can enjoy some relative freedom. Journalists outside Kampala – particularly radio journalists working in local languages focused on rural populations – face frequent challenges in freely reporting on issues deemed sensitive by local authorities loyal to the ruling party. – Human Rights Watch

Global rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch, says the Ugandan government and ruling party officials are threatening journalists and civil society activists in an attempt to curb criticism of government ahead of 2016 general elections.

In a report released earlier this month, the organisation notes that numerous state agencies and officials “have engaged in a range of tactics to intimidate and obstruct speech critical of the government”. The impact of these state-led threats is greatest outside Kampala where there is less scrutiny of government action.

Ms. Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, says it is unlikely that Uganda can hold free and fair elections if the media cannot criticize the government officials or the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM).

“Fair elections require a level playing field in which all candidates can freely campaign and voters make informed decisions,” she states.

The findings of the report titled ‘Keep the People Uninformed’ were drawn from 170 interviews in eight towns across Uganda. A number of journalists and station managers interviewed disclosed that they were threatened with suspension, dismissal or closure for covering opposition events and providing airtime to opposition politicians. Resident district commissioners (RDCs), whose appointment to the civil service is approved by the President, were specifically pointed out as responsible for intimidation of journalists in the countryside.

A station manager in Soroti who was interviewed by Human Rights Watch claimed that the RDC “intervened” whenever radio stations appeared to provide more airtime to the opposition than the ruling party. However if coverage was skewed towards the NRM, no such intervention was made.

The report also accuses internal security officials of intimidating journalists, and in one case, intercepting a journalist’s phone calls.

This testimony concurs with findings of the African Centre for Media Excellence. Last year when the organisation conducted nationwide training of journalists on election reporting, journalists stated that their efforts to balance political coverage were often thwarted by meddling government officials. Several participants disclosed that often radio station managers were incapable of withstanding the pressure to slant their programming in favour of the NRM.

Human Rights Watch notes that journalists and the news media are also complicit in the attempts to keep the public uninformed about political activity in the country. It says that some radio stations deliberately shut out the opposition by charging exorbitant fees for paid programming, while others do not offer this option at all. The result programming heavily biased towards the government.

Additionally, journalists readily receive bribes from pro-NRM officials, justifying the pay-outs as transportation refunds and simple refreshments.

“The co-option of the media by payouts ultimately impacts the public’s access to information and the education of voters on key issues. Ultimately, some journalists fear or reluctance to report information which may be perceived as critical of the government or the ruling party denies listeners the opportunity to receive balanced and factually accurate information to assess their voting choices,” the report states.

In order to stem the intimidation and abuse, Human Rights Watch recommends that journalists’ associations in Uganda should regularly train their members to promote credible and balanced reporting. It also recommends that the associations actively promote compliance with the journalists’ code of ethics and professional reporting of public interest issues.

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