The Uganda Police Force remains the leading perpetrator of violent crimes against journalists according to the Uganda Press Freedom Index released on Thursday by the Human Rights Network for Journalists- Uganda (HRNJ-U).
This is the seventh time in eleven years that the police are topping the list of violators of press freedom.
The report titled “Watch Dogs — Braving Hostility to Serve,” documented 165 incidents of violations against journalists in 2019, an increase from 163 in 2018. Reported cases attributed to the Police rose from 87 (53%) in 2018 to 101 (60%) in 2019.
“Police beat up and ironically arrested journalists who were protesting against police brutality,” the report highlights.
Violations by the Police, according to the report, occurred in different contexts but mainly during protests. For instance, the case of Makerere University student riots against fees increases; arresting and beating journalists demonstrating against brutality by the Police itself; and in situations involving opposition politicians.
“These violations included arrests, confiscation of cameras and other equipment, vandalizing equipment, assault, deleting footage, raiding broadcast studios and interrupting programs, blocking journalists from accessing news scenes and sources,” the report states.
Though previous reports have made recommendations for the police and military to develop rules of engagement or standard operating procedures for field officers relating to journalists caught up in situations when doing their work, the conduct of men on the ground during operations does not often reflect presence of or adherence to rules of engagement that respect press freedoms.
However, the report notes that the passing of the Human Rights (Enforcement Act) 2019, under which police officers can be charged personally for human rights violations, would go a long way in changing the narrative.
The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the regulator of the communications and broadcasting industry, featured prominently as the second biggest violator, accounting for 37 (22%) of the cases.
Notably, the body issued orders to close radio stations; tough warnings to broadcast stations against broadcasting certain content that it described as falling below minimum standards, and ordered managers to dismiss or suspend staff, the report states.
The report cited an incident in which UCC ordered the suspension of 39 broadcast managers after their stations had used sound bites of opposition parliamentarian, Robert Kyagulanyi, who was criticising President Yoweri Museveni and his son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba. The order was halted by the Court.
Additionally, the report accused UCC of lacking independence. It mentioned a case in which UCC forced the Daily Monitor to shut down its website over non-registration, soon after the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga had complained [to the regulator] about an article on the newspaper’s website.
Six cases were recorded against the UPDF. Some of these officers belong to the Fishing Protection Unit, which gained notoriety in different parts of Uganda for abuses against the fishing communities. The force has already dismissed 43 soldiers from this unit over human rights abuses and indiscipline, according to the report.
HRNJ-U Executive Director, Robert Ssempala says the environment for journalism practice has become increasingly precarious, and that the suffering of journalists is no longer limited to state actors alone but also non-state actors.
“In particular, the working conditions and terms of employment for most journalists are unjustifiable and their remuneration too little, if any at all. Broadcast regulatory climate has had moments that cause worry in the media industry and freedom of expression,” he says.
Other attacks on journalists were recorded against groups of individuals within the public, such as taxi drivers and brokers, an MP, party officials, civil leaders as well as journalists from two faith based media houses who pounced on colleagues in media-on-media violence.
Download the full report from HRNJ-U website.
PHOTO: Daily Monitor photo journalist Alex Essagala being manhandled by Police during the journalists’
protest against Police brutality in October 2019. PHOTO BY KELVIN ATUHAIRE, DAILY MONITOR