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Ugandan Security Forces Arrest Writer, TV Anchor After Coronavirus Posts

Ugandan health officials wearing protective gear disinfect the Nakawa open-air market as part of the measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Nakawa division of Kampala, April 17, 2020.

Ugandan security forces have arrested a writer and a television news anchor over posts they allegedly wrote on social media related to the coronavirus pandemic. Author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija appeared in court Monday, charged with committing an act that could spread the virus. Police also detained TV anchor Samson Kasumba as he left work and say he is under investigation.

Kakwenza was arrested Monday by a team of operatives from the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence who stormed his home in Iganga district, Eastern Uganda.

Kakwenza is the author of a satirical book titled The Greedy Barbarian, which most readers see as a comment on the president, Yoweri Museveni.

After his arrest, he appeared before a Grade One Magistrate Court in Iganga and was charged with conducting an act likely to spread a disease.

He is accused of posting a Facebook message on April 6 that allegedly urged the public not to comply with public health guidelines issued to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In the message, Kakwenza posted a picture taken inside a market, showing how people in Iganga were ignoring government guidelines on social distancing.

The message suggested the president needs to “be serious” about enforcing directives, and said, “If the country plunges into the abyss of famine ... never blame coronavirus but yourself and bigoted methods.”

Eron Kiiza, Kakwenza’s lawyer, spoke to VOA via Whatsapp.

“They produced him in court, but now not in Kampala, in Iganga and he was remanded up to 6th May. They refused him the chance to make his bail application yesterday and he has some torture marks, especially on his feet. But, we are happy that he’s at least from military detention to civil detention,” said Kiiza.

In a separate incident, police arrested a Kampala television anchor, Samson Kasumba, as he left his TV station Monday night.

Police spokesman Fred Enanga spoke about the arrest on Tuesday.

“He’s a subject of investigation and it’s not connected in any way to his journalistic work. But, he’s being investigated together with others for alleged subversive activities,” he said.

The spokesman did not specify what the alleged activities were. Over the weekend, Kasuma posted a Facebook message about the coronavirus that appeared to be non-controversial. The message said recoveries have surpassed active cases in Uganda, and asked if Uganda was the first country to accomplish this.

Arnaud Froger, head of the Africa desk for media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, said the group has recorded 65 press freedom violations in sub-Saharan Africa since the start of the coronavirus crisis.

He said authorities in multiple countries are trying to make journalists stick to the government line on the pandemic.

“Because they are afraid that independent information may get out. They are afraid that their official discourse may not be what corresponds to the facts that journalists are finding independently," said Froger.

Reporters Without Borders insists correct information is essential in the fight against the pandemic and has called on governments to make the media their ally, not an enemy.