Navigating threats to journalists in this violent campaign season

The question of safety of journalists in the line of duty has returned to foreground civic discourse about the democratic credentials, or the lack thereof, of Uganda’s ongoing electioneering.

This concern is not without basis, considering that Uganda is holding a “scientific” poll in which mass rallies are banned and the Electoral Commission pivots the media as a core channel for candidates to reach voters.

Thus, it is ironic and counter-productive that abuses against the media are rising. For example, Reporters Without Borders reported on 25 November, 2020 that it had documented seventeen “press freedom violations” in Uganda within three weeks – almost an average of one breach each day – from the day presidential candidates were nominated in early November.

In short, campaign messaging through the media is being imperilled in two ways: security forces blocking candidates from featuring on even paid-for talk shows and journalists being targeted while on duty.  

The latter has included physical brutalisation, arrests and threatening of media practitioners.

It is imperative to underline what I observe as a rather marked shift in the brutality pattern. First, and unlike previously when security personnel were the default perpetrators, this year’s campaigns reveal the disposition of non-state actors to attack journalists.

Second, journalists working for private and partially state-owned media houses such as Vision Group face similar risk exposure.

The Africa Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) and the Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda (HRNJ-U) have documented these violations as did the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Uganda (FCAU).

They include the separate arrests of Vision Group’s Roland Kakooza and Tonny Lule; the case of freelance journalist Moses Bwayo, struck in the face by a rubber bullet allegedly fired by police; and, an irate gang’s 12 November broad-day attack on Nile Broadcasting Service (NBS) Television journalists Thomas Kitimbo and Daniel Lutaaya during which the attackers vandalised the car and stole electronic gadgets.

The motive for these attacks remains unclear, although it is likely an outcome of an increasingly polarised and radicalised politics in which impartiality has no territory and where being on different sides equals enmity. Such level of intolerance would suggest physical confrontation is not only to be expected, but justified.

Another possible explanation is that some of the onslaughts, such as the 18 November waylaying of Daily Monitor News Editor Yasiin Mugerwa, may have been the handiwork of criminals on the loose.

But it would be rushed to foreclose other motivations or discount the intensity of the fear that such attacks – by unknown actors and for unknown reasons – induce to paralyse the work of journalists.

The intensified attacks targeting journalists present a teething problem for the industry in so far as journalism has always thrived on impartiality and the loyalty of journalists, as rough drafters of history, has anchored on offering accurate accounts without taking sides.

Thus, it is of necessity for media practitioners to be in the field to witness and document occurrences, talk to witnesses to get first-person narratives and verify claims.

Reporting the truth during campaigns is seminal to empower voters to make informed choices and help fact-check and debunk falsehoods and disinformation by flag bearers. For this reason, journalists’ work is crucial and made more premium in the context of Uganda’s “scientific” elections.

That all sides are attacking journalists may be an indication that the journalists are being professional and not favouring any camp, in which case the latter would be a good sign. It could also be that the brutes perceive their victims to be partial in their work.

Further, it may also plainly be that both security forces and rogues are aggressive in their disposition toward journalists because they each fear that their odious deeds would be documented and exposed. So, rather than not indulge in mischief, they seek to kill or mask the evidence by targeting the messenger.  

Whatever the motivation of the actors, the poignant issues are the ever-present danger posed to journalists while covering the campaigns and what requires to be done to safeguard them or minimise the risks.

Obviously, no media house singularly possesses all solutions to the problem at hand since some of the causes are external. For that reason, the possible fixes outlined below, which are curated from different sources including the Poynter Institute and the author’s own experience as a field Reporter, are not exhaustive and invite the participation of different actors.

Media Houses

  • Assign the most able and professional journalists to cover elections in order to minimise errors that render the individuals and industry vulnerable.
  • Provide helmets, bullet-proof and flak jackets for physical protection and clear identification of journalists in the field.
  • Train journalists on covering dangerous assignments and tip them about safety practices.
  • Develop in-house security protocol for rapid response and rescue of endangered journalists.
  • Routinely engage with government and security agencies to develop mutually-applicable and enforceable safety standards for journalists.
  • Collaborate with other industry players and media freedom defenders, and pool resources, to defend journalists, including legal representation.
  • Provide medical insurance for journalists and insure work equipment.
  • Facilitate journalists, always, including with transport.  
  • Working with partners, accelerate tailored media literacy campaigns to sensitise the masses about the significance of a free media.

Individual journalist

  • Report professionally, always remember no story is more important than your life.
  • Dress appropriately; avoid high heel shoes, long dresses or skirts that could impede swift escape from trouble spots and beware of politically-sensitive colours.
  • If from headquarters, coordinate with Bureau counterparts. Speaking the local language, understanding indigenous political dynamics and knowing trouble spots may be the difference between life and death.
  • Avoid suspicious physical presentations, for example, talk-back gadget or such electronic devices associated with spies.
  • Wear a bullet-proof jacket and display your media credential prominently unless in exceptional circumstances.
  • Preferable to operate behind police/security lines, or in the alternative on the sides, but follow security instructions, keep aware of the environment and ensure a constant observation zone.
  • Keep in company of colleagues (there is power in numbers) and avoid lone movements, especially in dark alleys or boarding in cheap but unsecured places.   
  • Beware of previous stories published, anticipate likely contestations and develop explanations/responses.
  • Avoid accepting random offers, particularly of food, drinks and lifts.
  • Minimise suspicious contact with conflicting parties, for example, security personnel and or demonstrators.  
  • Always carry a medical insurance card and emergency contacts in the pocket.
  • Install applications such DiskDigger to retrieve images you are ordered to delete.
  • Beware of digital security, minimise unnecessary exposure online and watch out if trailed.   
  • Revise travel routes, switch transport means (if possible) and keep in contact with media freedom defender organisations.
  • Do not take any threats such as anonymous call threats, messages or verbal threats lightly. Always document and, better, report to police even if only for the record.

The Government

  • Prevail over security forces to guarantee safety of journalists.
  • Hold regular audience with media owners and editors to resolve issues of mutual concern/interests, without waiting for a crisis.
  • Avoid public provocation against the media/journalists.
  • Publicly commit in defense of media freedom.

As earlier referenced, these proposed approaches are not exhaustive. The headwinds engulfing media in Uganda requires to be understood in the context of the risk that the electioneering process poses to everyone in the country.

The documented attacks on journalists are traumatising, but pale in comparison to the dozens of people, many of them innocent civilians, that security forces shot dead while subduing pro-Bobi Wine protests.

Therefore, the focus on threats to the media should not be conflated as lack of appreciation of dangers to other citizens. In concluding, it is instructive that journalists stick by the rules and expose malfeasance by state actors because media practitioners are unlikely to be safe in a country where repressed citizens are agitated and deprived of rights.

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Image by Alexas Fotos from Pixabay

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About the author

Tabu Butagira is an Urban Planner-turned-journalist, Hubert H. Humphrey (Fulbright) fellowship alumnus and has just completed his MA International Relations and Security studies at the University of Westminster, United Kingdom, where he was a 2019/20 Chevening Scholar.

About Tabu Butagira

The author is a Ugandan journalist and a Fulbright (Humphrey) fellowship alumnus. Email: tbutagira@asu.edu

View all posts by Tabu Butagira →

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