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June 06, 2012

Ugandan Journalists Face Violence and Intimidation

KAMPALA, Uganda - Harassment of journalists is on the rise in this East African nation, and freedom of speech is under threat, according to a recent report by Amnesty International.  

When Ugandan photojournalist Isaac Kasamani covered an opposition rally last January, he expected it to be a straightforward assignment.  First there were speeches.  Then Kasamani, who works for a local newspaper in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, followed Uganda opposition leader Kizza Besigye as he drove through the streets.

But suddenly, says Kasamani, things took a turn for the worse.

“After the rally, chaos erupted - police against Besigye’s supporters, throwing of the stones, tear gas.  As a journalist, I followed up.  I wanted to know what was happening.  Somebody from inside the van threw a tear gas canister.  So as I was moving towards the front part of both cars to take a picture, somebody opened the passengers’ vehicle, aimed a gun at me, [and] shot at me," he said.

Kasamani left the rally unscathed.  But he says the men who shot at him were plainclothes police officers.  For him and his colleagues, he says, journalism is becoming an increasingly risky profession. “They beat them.  Some are being arrested.  A colleague I work with at the Daily Monitor, he was recently arrested.  It is getting much worse now," he said.

Amnesty International agrees.  According to a report released by the human-rights watchdog last month, attacks on Ugandan journalists are on the rise.  Amnesty’s Michelle Kagari says this is part of a wider trend, as the Ugandan government cracks down on its critics across the country.

“Our findings are that the space for freedom of expression and association has shrunk and it continues to shrink.  Of course, when that space shrinks, the people who tend to feel it the most initially are opposition politicians and journalists.  There has been less and less space to question government practice, question government policy and criticize what government is doing on specific issues," she said.

Police spokesman Ibin Ssenkumbi denies that abuse of journalists is widespread, and points a finger at the journalists themselves for demanding too much access and freedom.

“There have been a few instances where there have been clashes between a few individual journalists and police, especially during operations.  But that is not an institutional policy.  We have also encountered some problems that some of our journalists are actually unprofessional.  They want to have limitless powers and freedom in any place at any time, which, practically, is not possible," he said.

Kagari says Amnesty has documented about 30 cases of journalists who have been arrested for doing their jobs, and now face criminal charges.  She adds media censorship comes in more insidious forms as well.

She describes one case of a radio station in rural Uganda, on which local residents were asked what they thought about the government’s oil policy.

“It was a community show where people would call in and give their views, and this was closed down.  We were told by the editors that they got a call from the LC (local council) chairman and told, ‘You are inciting people, and if you want your license, if you know what is good for you, you will stop this.’  And that seems to be the pattern.  This is happening quite a bit," she said.

According to Kagari, Ugandan journalists are not alone.  She says throughout Africa nervous leaders have been watching the uprisings in the Arab world with trepidation.  Often, their reaction has been to stifle freedom of expression. “That has been the general response of African leaders; they do not want any space whatsoever to question their authority, question their governance, because they are afraid that the same thing that happened in North Africa would happen here," she said.

After the shooting incident during the rally, Isaac Kasamani lodged an official complaint with the Ugandan government.  But he says the investigation they conducted was a sham. “They sent in a private Irish investigator, who was hired by the government to do the investigations.  In his report, he changed everything I had told him, he changed every statement I had given him, and in the end he said that there was no shooting," he said.

Kagari is concerned that in repressing the media and opposition, African leaders have failed to learn an important lesson from the so-called Arab Spring: that if you do not allow your people to speak out peacefully, they will find other, more violent ways to express themselves.