Image by Edward Echwalu from Echwalu Photography
With just two weeks left to Uganda’s presidential and parliamentary elections, the Police have again warned that journalists who have not registered with the Media Council will be blocked from covering campaigns and other electoral activities starting 31 December.
The warning, which came in a press statement signed by the new Deputy Inspector General of Police, Maj. Gen. Paul Lokech, appears to be the latest move by the government to manage information about election campaigns that have been marred by violence against leading opposition candidates and their supporters.
The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), which regulates broadcasting and telecommunications, had earlier written to Google asking the tech giant to take down several online platforms sharing campaign news. Without providing evidence, UCC accused the platforms, including Ghetto TV, Map Mediya TV, and TMO Online, among others, of broadcasting content likely to incite violence and ethnic unrest.
The move to allow only accredited journalists to cover the campaigns, commentators have pointed out, appears to target National Unity Platform’s Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, whose campaign under the hashtag #WeAreRemovingADictator, has been propelled by online platforms and social media.
Mr Kyagulanyi is the leading contender against incumbent Yoweri Museveni who has ruled for nearly 35 years.
But enforcing the accreditation will also see the exclusion of hundreds of journalists who either cannot afford the prescribed fees or do not have the qualifications required by the Media Council as well as those who, on principle, oppose statutory registration of media practitioners.
Maj. Gen. Lokech said the accreditation would help the police to distinguish journalists who are compliant from those who are holding out.
“All the accredited journalists and media practitioners must visibly wear their press badges at all times, while covering the political campaigns and electoral events,” he said. “They should also know that the media press badges are personalized and therefore, non-transferable.”
The Deputy IGP said the Media Council list of all accredited journalists had been shared with police zonal and territorial commanders.
“This arrangement will help us, accord journalists, better protection over the remaining electoral process,” he added.
Gen. Lokech asked journalists “subjected to any form of physical abuse and other forms of harassment in the course of their duties” to report their cases to the police media crimes department.
The Media Council had extended the deadline for registration and accreditation of journalists to 30 from 21 December 2020 after attracting criticism from different actors over the timing of the accreditation, the costs involved, as well as the legality of the move.
Over the last seven weeks, at least 20 journalists have been attacked, injured, and/or arrested as they covered election-related events.
On the day Gen. Lokech issued his statement, Daily Monitor journalist Derrick Wandera, who had been covering Mr Kyagulanyi’s campaign, was arrested in Kalangala district, where the NUP candidate was “restrained” by police from campaigning. The phone he had been using to send updates was smashed. BBS TV journalist Culton Scovia Nakamanya was also detained after being accused of “giving live updates” about the detention of several members of Mr Kyagulanyi’s campaign team.
This came only two days after three journalists were seriously injured after police fired at them as security agencies dispersed Mr Kyagulanyi’s supporters in Masaka.
Following a 10 December press statement Media Council chairman Paulo Ekochu had warned that criminal charges would be slapped on any media houses and journalists, both local and international, including freelancers, who cover electoral events without accreditation.
Industry groups and civil society organisations protested the directive from the regulator, questioning the timing in the middle of campaigns ahead of the 14 January general elections.
Representatives of the Uganda Editors Guild later met with the Council and it was understood that a new deadline for the registration of journalists would be announced.
But freedom of expression advocates have maintained that a new registration deadline alone would not give the council’s move legitimacy. They have pointed to the absence of the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda (NIJU), which by law is supposed to enroll the journalists to whom the regulator would then issue practising certificates, as well as the fact that the Media Council is not fully constituted.