(Kampala) - Supporters of Uganda's ruling party, including government officials, are threatening and intimidating journalists in an effort to curb criticism of the government, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch urged the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) government to honor World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2010, by publicly condemning such practices and amending laws to protect free expression in the lead-up to the 2011 elections.
The 60-page report, "A Media Minefield: Increased Threats to Freedom of Expression in Uganda," documents multiple recent cases in which Ugandan journalists have faced increasing threats from government officials and NRM party members, intimidation, harassment, and in some instances, government-inspired criminal charges. The cases involved journalists who had reported critically about the government, presented opposing political views, or exposed state wrongdoing, such as corruption or failure to investigate crimes, particularly in rural areas. Furthermore, Uganda's media regulatory system is partisan and does not tolerate criticism of the governing party, Human Rights Watch said.
"The Ugandan government has been limiting free expression under the dubious guise of keeping public order and security," said Jon Elliott, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "This must stop. One of the cornerstones of free speech is the right to criticize those in positions of power."
During riots in the capital, Kampala, in September 2009 that left at least 40 people dead, Ugandan police and soldiers beat and detained journalists who were trying to report on unfolding events or debate the cause of the riots on the radio. The government shut down four Kampala radio stations without notice or hearing. It also arbitrarily banned open-air broadcasting, known as bimeeza, a popular forum for public debate. That ban remains in force.
The media crackdown in Kampala has been replicated by ruling party officials and supporters throughout rural areas. Human Rights Watch research found that local authorities and ruling party operatives repeatedly referred to the state's response to the Kampala riots to intimidate local journalists reporting on politics. The officials similarly threatened rural radio reporters with violence, arrest, and station closings for reporting on what the officials considered "controversial" local issues.
One journalist and talk-show host based outside Kampala and broadcasting in a local language told Human Rights Watch that security officials and NRM members had threatened him three times in the last year over the content of his programming. Most recently, after a program to discuss the successes and failures of the ruling party since it took power 24 years ago, the journalist received phone calls from the regional internal security officer, a state employee, warning that the subject of discussion had been "inappropriate." Later, the area's chief ruling party mobilizer threatened the journalist, saying, "We don't want to hear any of that. You can disappear and no one will know where we have taken you."
Uganda's multiple media regulatory bodies, under the Information Ministry's control, have broad powers to seize radio equipment and close stations without prior notification, court orders, or any evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Since the previous political campaigns in 2005, more than 30 independent journalists have been summoned by the police or charged with crimes such as sedition, incitement to violence, and promoting sectarianism. In many cases, these charges were levied for criticizing the government or reporting views of those who are critical of the ruling party.
Outside of the capital, local government officials, such as resident district commissioners who represent the President's office at the district level, police, district internal security officials, and ruling party mobilizers wield significant formal and informal power to silence the media. In some cases, threats are overt and public, such as in Gulu district where the deputy resident district commissioner publicly threatened to "eliminate" an individual journalist for his reporting on the activities of an opposition party. Even though these threats were made publicly, there has been no police investigation, and the official was not disciplined.
Other threats to rural-based journalists are more subtle and covert, such as ruling party members calling or visiting journalists and intimating violence if a particular story is pursued. In some instances, the police have even detained journalists who seek information about the police's failure to investigate crimes.
The Ugandan government is currently moving to curtail free speech even further. Human Rights Watch called on members of parliament to reject proposed draft amendments to the current Press and Journalist Act that require annual licensing of print media and permit the government to deny a license if it disagrees with a newspaper's "social, cultural and economic values." Instead, the lawmakers should amend current laws so that they comply with international human rights standards, established principles of free expression, and Uganda's own constitution, Human Rights Watch said.
Journalists told Human Rights Watch that the government's unpredictable reaction to political reporting and analysis is having a "chilling effect" on their current affairs and news coverage. Some now choose to steer clear of any subject that might attract government attention or sanction. This self-censorship is especially prevalent among rural-based radio station reporters and talk-show hosts who broadcast in Uganda's local languages in districts where legal protections and international scrutiny are the most lacking. The trepidation of rural-based reporters concerning "sensitive" political issues could have a particularly pronounced effect on access to impartial information in the lead-up to the 2011 elections, as most Ugandans still get their news and information from radio broadcasts in local languages.
"The draft amendments to the media laws and the worrying pattern of threats to rural radio journalists are evidence of a government seeking to muzzle free expression," Elliott said. "The elections in 2011 cannot be judged free and fair unless voters have access to a variety of viewpoints on issues of public concern well in advance of the polls."
Human Rights Watch called on the Ugandan government to end intimidation, threats, and physical attacks on journalists, to tolerate open reporting and commentary on any issue of public concern, to amend laws to ensure that media regulatory bodies are free from all government interference, and to appoint an independent commission of experts to investigate the unlawful detention and beating of journalists during the September 2009 riots and any other allegations of intimidation of the Ugandan media.
World Press Freedom Day, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, is celebrated every year on May 3. It is an opportunity to reflect on the international principles of press freedom and to ensure that journalists around the world can report on events, free from political interference.