Expels Foreign Journalist, Prosecutes Local Media
The Ugandan government’s expulsion of a foreign journalist is the latest example of a crackdown on independent media that predates recent elections, Human Rights Watch said. At least three local journalists also face serious criminal charges on account of their work.
President Yoweri Museveni, in power in Uganda since 1986, won re-election last month, giving him another five-year term. The ruling National Resistance Movement won a majority of seats in parliament in the presidential and parliamentary elections of February 23, the first multiparty poll in two decades.
“The government waited until the elections were over and most of the foreign press and observers had gone to kick out one of the few resident foreign journalists,” said Jemera Rone, East Africa coordinator for Human Rights Watch. “But government attempts to intimidate the media began before the elections.”
Blake Lambert, a Canadian freelance reporter, was denied re-entry to Uganda on March 9. For two years he has covered Uganda for The Economist, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Washington Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and was also a frequent participant in a popular talk-show broadcast on Uganda’s independent radio KFM.
Lambert said the government earlier refused to renew his media accreditation, which is required for a work permit, prompting him to leave for South Africa on March 4, when the permit expired. He returned to Uganda on March 9, hoping to arrange his documents on reentry. At the airport, a security official marked his passport with an “X” and put him on a plane to Nairobi without explanation.
The government said Lambert posed a security threat, but did not explain how or cite any of his articles as posing a danger. Lambert told Human Rights Watch that he never received an explanation about the refusal to renew his accreditation or his visa. “I was just booted out of the country,” he said.
Local journalists in Uganda also face increasing pressure from the government, Human Rights Watch said. On December 13, 2005, after the start of the election campaign, the state brought criminal charges of “promoting sectarianism” against editor James Tumusiime and reporter Semujju Ibrahim Nganda of the privately owned Weekly Observer. They face up to five years in prison. The paper had reported accusations from the opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) that the president and top military officials were persecuting its presidential candidate, Kizza Besigye, on ethnic grounds.
On February 1, the Ugandan army raided the Unity FM radio station in Lira, northern Uganda, and arrested station manager Jimmy Onapa Uhuru, journalist Paul Odonga and two others after the station reported that the government was busing people into the region to boost numbers at a rally for President Museveni. The district Deputy Police Chief Taire Idwege told local journalists that police had opened a criminal investigation of the radio staff.
On election day, Acting District Police Commander Charles Obella, of Soroti, eastern Uganda, visited Radio Veritas and ordered staff to cease broadcasting because they had “violated the law,” although he did not say how. The State Minister of Health Mike Mukula, a candidate for parliament in Soroti, then telephoned and ordered them to stop working. The station agreed not to broadcast any information about the poll from noon to 4 p.m. Mukula lost the election.
Andrew Mwenda, political editor of The Monitor newspaper and a popular radio presenter on KFM, is on bail while facing several charges of sedition and “promoting sectarianism” for remarks he made on his radio show in August 2005. Mwenda spoke about government responsibility in the death of Sudanese First Vice President John Garang, who died in July 2005 when the Ugandan presidential helicopter in which he was a passenger crashed in Southern Sudan.
On November 23, the Ministry of Information issued a directive to media outlets forbidding them from running stories on the trial of Besigye, the FDC opposition candidate facing charges of terrorism, treason, and rape. The media generally ignored the directive and continued to cover the trials. The rape trial ended in an acquittal after the elections ended. The other charges are still pending.
“Uganda has a vibrant and courageous media and the government must not try to limit its work though political prosecutions,” said Rone. “The ruling party should also stop trying to weed out foreign journalists it doesn’t like.”
In mid 2005, the government formed a new body, the Media Centre, which vetted foreign journalists, including those already accredited by the official Media Council. Local media groups complained that the government had created the new body to filter out journalists whose reporting it did not like. In addition to refusing to renew Lambert’s credentials, the new Media Centre reduced to four months the year-long accreditation held by Will Ross of the BBC.