More than a dozen Ugandan media outlets said on Tuesday that they will reassign senior journalists in response to government complaints over coverage of opposition lawmaker and pop star Bobi Wine, prompting criticism that media freedoms are under attack.
Rights activists and a journalists union criticized the decision, saying caving in to demands by the government regulator Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) further weakens the media in a country where journalists already face frequent intimidation and harassment.
"The bosses have surrendered to UCC, UCC is going to control them ... we are disappointed," Moses Bayola, general secretary of the Uganda Journalists Association, told Reuters.
Wine, who has enthralled his youthful support base through a mix of populist protests and lyrics condemning corruption and declining living standards, intends to challenge President Yoweri Museveni in the 2021 elections.
Museveni, 74, has been in power since 1986. Opposition and some rights activists say he has grown authoritarian, citing frequent tear-gassing of opposition rallies, jailing of activists and harassment of independent media.
Wine, 37 and universally referred to by his stage name rather than his given name of Robert Kyagulanyi, was jailed last week for two days over protests he led about a tax on the use of social media.
He was freed on bail but government regulator the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) ordered the suspension of more than 30 journalists at 13 TV and radio stations after the media outlets carried live footage of Wine's arrest and protests by his supporters.
Diplomats criticized the suspension and media outlets requested a meeting with the government, which took place Tuesday. At the end of the meeting, it was agreed the suspension would be lifted if the journalists moved roles, Johnson Omolo, general manager at privately-owned NTV Uganda, told Reuters.
The head of the commission confirmed the deal. Omolo said the station's news manager, programme manager and news producer would be reassigned to other duties.
"I think that's a positive step towards harmonizing our relationship with the regulator especially at the time when we are going into elections, when the media will be under a lot of pressure for balanced reporting and coverage," he said, referring to Tuesday's deal.
The station, owned by Kenya's Nation Media Group is one of the outlets that the commission demanded suspend staff last week.
NTV Uganda and NBS TV, also targeted by the commission, are Uganda's largest independent broadcasters.
The commission's executive director, Godfrey Mutabazi, told Reuters the journalists would be reassigned until the commission finishes an investigation into alleged violations of broadcasting rules that prohibit the publication of material that might incite violence, hatred, obscenity or inflame sectarianism.